The Exum Game: Coming Soon?

October 13th, 2016 | by Dan Clayton
Utahjazz.com/Melissa Majchrzak

Utahjazz.com/Melissa Majchrzak

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.

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.

  • The Summer League game was pretty special, marred only by the fact that there was never an encore, since he ended that game with a minor ankle injury that kept him from the rest of the games and then was eclipsed by a more grave ACL injury later that summer.
  • Shortly after being promoted to the starting lineup in early 2015, Exum had back-to-back games with a combined 28 points and nine assists. He was mostly a benefactor in those early performances, though. The Exum Game will be at least partially about his creation ability.
  • Since I was present for his 14 points at Brooklyn on March 8 of that year, I was partial to his performance that night. He was 5/6 from the field and even symbolically blocked former Jazz point guard Deron Williams’ three attempt. But four of his five buckets were spot-up threes, so again, that night was more about him getting set up by others.
  • Exum had a 12-assist performance in April 2015 that featured some of the same aggressiveness and creativity that made him a top five pick. It also inspired a column about how he was getting better at next-level reads.
  • He had defining defensive performances throughout his rookie year, perhaps most notably when he contained Steph Curry and posted a +19 in an upset 10-point win4 over Golden State. He also got off to a great start in a win against the Spurs where he bottled up Tony Parker, but Ben Dowsett had the nerve to jinx that one, so he wound up with just five points and two assists.

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

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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12 Comments

  1. H says:

    Great article, I’m pumped to see what Dante can do this season. I’m biased as an Aussie fan but I think if he can stay fit that the sky is the limit. His shot will improve and so long as he has the confidence and speed to take the ball inside he will be finishing at the rim regularly or dishing to Rudy for the dunk.

  2. Diggin' it says:

    It’s gotta be coming close, but I can’t wait to see The Exum Game happen for reals.

  3. rvalens2 says:

    Dante looks to be far ahead of where he was his rookie season. The quick first step, the drives to the basket and the improved outside shot all bode well for the Utah Jazz. And let’s not forget the connection he has with Rudy Gobert. Watching the two of them banter with one another in the Suns game, it was obvious to me that a friendship and camaraderie has developed that transcends basketball.

    Go Jazz!

  4. Biased Australian says:

    Dante can play and he is mentally strong enough to lead from the point. Just needs to be consistent, gain the trust of his team mates and become more confident. We are all supporting him from Australia, his dedication and commitment to the national team is second to none. I think the Jazz will win 48 games this year in a tough western conference

  5. Paul Johnson says:

    It’s fun to watch the young Jazz players such as Dante, Rudy and Trey Lyles, who appear to be able to do things that other players at their positions just can’t do. It feels like we are watching the genesis of some future NBA stars. On top of that, add in the other very good, young, well-rounded players in Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors, as well as the cagey veterans in George Hill, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and Joe Ingles, and finally some end-of-the-bench players who can actually play, if needed, in Shelvin Mack/Raul Neto/Chris Johnson, Joel Bolomboy and Jeff Withey, and I think the Jazz have a recipe for a very successful, fun season.

    • I agree with you except you listed 16 players, the Jazz need to get that down to 15. I hate to see the Jazz cut a player but the way Hill and Exum show that they could play the sg I believe cj will be cut. He showed in the Suns game his hustle and rebounding ability. I just wish he could shoot better and make it more difficult for Quinn because that is when the Jazz would show that they are a good deep team.

      • Paul Johnson says:

        That’s why I bunched Mack, Neto and Johnson all together in my post–the Jazz can keep only two out of those three players on the final roster. Since last season ended, I have thought that CJ did not have much of a chance to make the final roster, but the way he has played in the pres-season has made it a very difficult decision. I would probably prefer to see the Jazz trade one of Mack or Neto for a draft pick, and keep Johnson at this point, but who knows what will happen. There are a couple of teams that are still searching for another point guard (such as Detroit and Cleveland).

        • Paul Johnson says:

          It’s pretty unusual for an NBA team to have a 15-man roster where every single player can really play in a competent manner, if needed–like the Jazz this season. The last 4-5 players on most NBA teams are either “developmental players” or just not very good for whatever reason.

  6. telochian says:

    Biased Aussie fan here too, but I like everything I see from Dante thus far. Despite a few rank air balls from 3 point land which I assume was fatigue, his shot is looking much better particularly from the free throw line. He looks great athletically, I can’t see much, if any drop off from where he was in the Summer League which is a very good sign. That little improvised pull up jump shot looked very natural, something he really didn’t have in his rookie year. Most importantly, he is getting into the lane, creating and finishing which is his true strength (defense aside). Once he realises how easily he can break defenses down and begins to trust that mid range jumper, he’ll be a nightmare and there will be some very happy Jazz team mates on the end of some stunning assists.

    Full credit to him, he has obviously worked incredibly hard throughout his rehab process. I don’t think anyone expected him to look this good this soon after the ACL injury…….most returning players don’t.

  7. Spencer says:

    What really excited me in the Phoenix game was how he was finishing at the rim. He is not a natural leaper and rim smashing power point like Westbrook. If he can model his game after Tony Parker, that would be ideal. Parker used to lead the league in points in the paint without ever leaving the ground. I saw some of those finishes last game. The tear drop, the extension and wrong foot detailed In this article. In truth that is a lot more sustainable way to score anyway. Parker is still doing those things now and I’m not sure he can even dunk anymore!

    Curry is the current standard for scoring around the rim but below.

  8. Spencer says:

    Let’s talk defense.

    The Clippers game had a few highlights that most players never get in their careers. They can mostly against Jamal Crawford. First, Crawford was shut down a couple of times I a row. The most significant one was the time Exum drew a charge AND stripped the ball. Most olayers can’t stay in from of Crawford to draw a foul. Most can’t catch up to his handle to strip him. Exum did both on the same play. Sweet.

    Second. Exum’s defense against Booker. He is the Bokker stopper as well.

  9. Pingback: Where Should Our Expectations Be For Exum? | Salt City Hoops

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