Just over three minutes into Wednesday night’s preseason game against Phoenix, Dante Exum was already cooking.
At the 8:40 mark, the Jazz guard found himself in the corner, with Suns star Eric Bledsoe trying to deny him the cut to the top. Exum juked towards the baseline to shake Bledsoe off his spot, then went up to take the dribble hand-off from Boris Diaw. The Aussie then zipped behind staggered screens from Diaw and Rudy Gobert, slowed for half a beat at the free throw line, then changed gears as he went to the lane, scooping a shot in on a wrong-footed1 layup that caught Bledsoe off guard and drew the foul2.
It was Exum’s third bucket of the game already, to which he added his seventh point moments later from the line. And he wasn’t nearly done.
By night’s end, Exum had a team-high 18 points on 5/10 shooting and 8/9 from the line. He uncorked a floater amid three defenders. He pulled up for an elbow jumper when his screener’s man stayed back. He drew help with his quick first step and then rocked a pass back out for a 3-point assist. He drew foul after foul by slicing through tight spaces.
And he reminded me that the watch is officially on for what may be the single most exciting Jazz-related occurrence of the early season… The Exum Game.
Ever since the Jazz selected Dante with the 5th overall pick in 2014, fans have been waiting for that game, that half, that quarter when the kid from Melbourne would look unstoppable. Not the moment when he looked like he belonged — he’s had those. Not the momentary flashes of brilliance — those have been present since 2014. The time when, for a stretch, instinct and talent took over and Exum would look like the best guy on the court.
The Exum Game will be that moment, hopefully inevitable, when Exum realizes what he has and that he can do what he wants. It might surprise everybody, including himself, but he’ll grab our attention and remind us what’s possible.
The Exum Game RT @getsit One day, Dante’s going to decide to start driving to the hoop, and… all your lives will be radically changed.
— dan clayton (@danclayt0n) February 10, 2015
We’re still waiting, but Wednesday’s 18-point performance might be a hint that it’s close. The impressive part about the way he carved up the Suns on Wednesday wasn’t the numeric output; it was the way he attacked, used his speed, challenged defenders. That kind of aggressiveness would have been impressive two years ago when rookie Exum was just getting to the big boys’ league, but it’s even more encouraging to see him trust and test that surgically repaired knee and will himself into the paint.
By definition, The Exum Game can’t be a preseason game, just as it couldn’t be a 20-point, five-assist Summer League performance last summer. In fact, even if it came in a regular game against that same Phoenix defense3, I’d probably want a bit more proof. It’s only The Exum Game if it’s a contest for real marbles, a game that counts.
But he has been close.
Bottom line: he’s had no shortage of promising games, telling moments and flashes of potential.
But we want The Exum Game™.
Let’s be clear: Even when that game happens, it’s not a one-way ticket, a threshold he’ll cross and never again come back the other way. In this league, young players very frequently find “it,” only to have “it” elude them again.
When I was a Spanish radio commentator for the Jazz, my on-air partner and I used to to talk about that phenomenon with Gordon Hayward. It was very obvious by Hayward’s third season that he could be a very good player, but it was really rare to see him play at a star level in consecutive games. Here is Gordon’s point total in the game AFTER each of his 18+ point outings in his third season: 7, 12, 8, 17, 3, 14, 5, 26, 11, 5, 17, 5, 10, 23, 13. So only twice that year did Hayward — a top-30 player today — string together consecutive 18-plus outings, and his average in the game after breaking 18 was 11.7.
Eventually, Hayward figured it out. In my last season before a move eastward forced me to hang up the micrófono, he started to show that every-night ability that eventually made him the Jazz’s best player. That year, he boosted his average on the game following an 18+ performance to… 18.3 points.
That’s just a long way of saying this: don’t begrudge Exum if he finally bequeaths unto the viewing audience all the joy of The Exum Game and then follows it up with a clunker. It happens.
But we want to know it’s there. We want to see the look on Dante’s face when he realizes, “Oh, I can do things all these dudes can’t.” We want to see the arrival of Dante Exum, top five pick and potential future All-Star.
We want The Exum Game.
— dan clayton (@danclayt0n) November 29, 2014