The Jazz drafted Dante Exum because of his potential. It wasn’t his current ability, great smile, irresistible Aussie accent, or even his admirable attitude and character. Drafting Exum was betting on a ceiling without much attention given to the notion of a floor.
Half a season into Exum’s NBA career, how are we to understand that ceiling now? There are numerous ways to answer the question, but for the purposes of this profile, I will use history. Specifically, examination of the last 20 years of All-NBA guards. I included only first and second team players as these represent most clearly the type of player typically categorized as a “superstar.” And this analysis is about type: an attempt to group All-NBA guards according to attributes and skills and then see which classification best fits Exum’s possibilities.
Adhering to the Jazz’s current philosophy of shedding categorization of players by traditional positions, I analyzed the list of players and created what I see as three distinct player roles rather than strict positions:1
– Scoring guards: Players whose primary value is as a first offensive option, depended upon to score at a high rate every single night. This category includes 11 players: Kobe Bryant, Anfernee Hardaway, James Harden, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Mitch Richmond, Derrick Rose, Brandon Roy, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook.
– Shooting guards: Players whose primary value is their ability to shoot efficiently, especially from long range. 5 players: Ray Allen, Gilbert Arenas, Sam Cassell, Stephen Curry, and Tim Hardaway.
– Orchestrating guards: Players whose primary value is their ability to initiate, manage, and drive the offensive system upon which the team depends. 9 players: Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, John Stockton, Rod Strickland, and Deron Williams.
Using a four tiered system ranging from “Excellent” to “Poor,” I assigned each player a tier for each of the following:
Physical Traits: Height; Weight; Length; Speed; Strength; No Step Vertical; Max Vertical; and Explosiveness.
Skill Sets: Interior Scoring; Shooting; Passing; Ball Handling; Offensive Awareness; and Defensive Ability.2
Take Michael Jordan as an example of how players code in the system: 8 “Elite” rankings, 3 “Good” rankings, 2 “Average” rankings (shooting and passing), and one no rank (no step vertical).
After analyzing the data, what conclusions have I drawn?
1. Dante Exum Lacks the Physical Attributes to be an Elite Scoring Guard
Two innate physical characteristics set these players apart from other guards: explosiveness and strength.
6 of the 11 All-NBA scoring guards boasted “Elite/Good” or better combinations of explosiveness and strength – they also happen to account for 14 NBA championships and 7 MVP awards. The other 19 players combined (scoring, shooting, and orchestrating guards) have accounted for 5 championships3 and 3 MVPs.
I term guards with advantages to both strength and explosiveness as Franchise Prototypes. These are the guards the league revolves around, the Jordans, Bryants, Wades, Westbrooks, and Roses.4 Each has been voted a top-10 MVP candidate, with most multiple time top-5 candidates.
Below this tier are players like James Harden, Brandon Roy, and Mitch Richmond, players with elite strength and size but lacking the explosiveness of the most dynamic scoring guards.
The remaining two players in this category are unique cases: Allen Iverson and Anfernee Hardaway. Iverson’s once-ever mix of speed and quickness, athleticism, and sheer scoring gumption packed into such a small frame may never be seen again.
Penny Hardaway is a singular case of enough interest to hold over for later.
How does Exum fit in this category? He doesn’t. The Aussie’s combination of poor strength and poor explosiveness is more akin to Steve Nash, Sam Cassell, or Gilbert Arenas than Jordan or even Harden. He simply lacks the strength to play through good, physical defense and take points when he needs them. Compounding this limitation is his inability to explode into the air to get respectable shots in circumstances where other players either take heavily contested shots or simply can’t score.
His youth is no defense to this conclusion. Derrick Rose was wowing Chicago with explosive dunks as a high school junior. Kobe Bryant won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest when he was 18. Jordan, and Wade, and Westbrook were dunking over opponents as college freshmen, while players like Harden and Richmond were bullying their way to the hoop and shooting bunches of free throws at that age.
Exum will grow stronger as he matures, and with help from P3, he might even improve his bounce a little. But these are largely inherent physical characteristics, and Exum ranks in the bottom tier of both by the standards of an NBA guard. There’s no way he rises from bottom dwelling to rocking the rim with frequency and authority. Without that, this is no avenue to stardom.
2. Exum Is Unlikely to Become a Great Shooting Guard – Though Right Now, He’s Trying
Halfway through his rookie season, Exum had shot 162 jump shots compared to an anorexic 14 layups. That’s a nearly 12 to 1 ratio. Despite being half a foot shorter than Exum and slower to boot, Trey Burke is managing an 8 to 1 ratio this season. Exum’s (perfectly understandable) solution to the challenge of jumping from competing against Australian high schoolers to the best basketball players in the world has been to find an easy to understand, supportive role in the offense with limited opportunity to make mistakes and no responsibility for system execution: the 3 and D guy.
The good news is Exum’s three point percentage of 31.2% shows definite improvement upon his pre-NBA career. The bad news, however, is plentiful.
To start, 31.2% (and 36.0% overall) is still bad shooting – by the historical precedents in this post, borderline “Poor/Average” tier. Exum would have to experience phenomenal growth simply to become a second tier shooter by modern guard standards.
That progress is constrained by several other factors. First, Exum will never get more room to shoot than he currently enjoys. According to NBA.com, only 4.7% of Exum’s threes this season have been contested by a defender within 4 feet. As his accuracy increases, his air-space in which to shoot will decrease, which is a significant consideration given a second constraining factor: Exum’s mechanics.
His shot isn’t flawed, but it is limited. His lack of elevation counteracts the high release point provided by his stature, making contesting his shots only moderately difficult. Of greater concern is the deliberateness of his stroke. He’s clearly working on mechanical soundness: feet set, hands up and ready to receive a pass, a steady transition to shooting position followed by a full, smooth release. It’s exactly how a player should improve questionable shooting – but it isn’t fast.
This combination of factors suggests that even if Exum does substantially improve his shooting percentage from the perimeter, he’ll never approach star status within the shooting guard role.
3. Exum’s Most Likely Path to Stardom Is As an Orchestrating Guard, but Only If…
Exum’s physical profile (fast without explosiveness or strength) and most developed skills (offensive awareness, court vision, and passing) best fit the orchestrating guard. If he were to blossom into all he can be in this role, the potential is dazzling. If, however, his developmental trajectory takes him in alternative directions, the Jazz should be happy if he becomes a solid NBA starter.
To put it in antiquated positional terms, would anyone be excited about a 6’6″ shooting guard who shies from contact and can’t jump or shoot?
Exum’s only possible path to fulfilling expectations, reasonable and unreasonable, is as an orchestrating guard. In attempting to achieve that, I consider two players suitable models he might emulate.5
The Dark Horse candidate is the previously mentioned Penny Hardaway. Yes, I know I categorized him as a scoring guard and claim Exum must become an orchestrating guard. This is because Hardaway was one of the players most against type – as Exum will most likely be given his unique package as a prospect. Much in the same way LeBron James resembles Magic Johnson as least as much as Michael Jordan, Exum has the potential to transmute Hardaway’s combination of length, passing, scoring, and defense in similar fashion but distinctive proportion.
Exum is less explosive than Hardaway was, and his stature, while impressive, is less so than Penny’s when he entered the league a 6’7″ point guard in 1993. However, there is no question Exum is faster. By shading Hardaway’s game more toward the passing side to lessen his pure scoring burden, Exum could find his way to superstardom.
He could also find a league much better prepared to contest a ball-dominant guard of stature than Hardaway encountered more than 20 years ago, making this comparison laughable. The Hardaway player type is exciting but risky.
The safest model, if such a word can be applied to such a projection, is Tony Parker.
Both entered the league as 19-year-old foreign phenoms, but that is largely peripheral. The core of the comparison is their shared attributes and skills: slim, lightning-quick rim attackers who finish at odd angles around, yet below, the hoop. Simultaneously, both can register the position of teammates and hit them with passes while attacking the paint.
Exum’s novice forays into the key this season have been few and far between, but they show the beginnings of a game remarkably like that of Parker: floaters from 5 to 7 feet, body-contorting layup attempts, using angles rather than elevation to make a safe release point for a shot. Additionally, Exum’s height and length present the possibility of enhancing the game displayed by Parker for 13 NBA seasons. Exum’s floaters can become that much more difficult to contest and his options for getting off shots that much more plentiful due to his reach – not to mention far superior defensive potential due simply to his stature.
Like Parker, Exum will have to develop aspects of his game exponentially to brush his ceiling. Shooting is in glaring need of improvement, and the young Aussie will have to hold up under demanding pressure from Quin Snyder much like the furnace Gregg Popovich readily admits to stuffing Parker in as a young player in San Antonio.
But Exum’s game possesses one dangerous liability Parker’s lacked: ball handling. Dante Exum currently doesn’t handle the ball well enough to come within shouting distance of his ultimate potential. He isn’t a poor ball handler, but by the standards of the player type he should fill, he is markedly deficient. At this point, Exum’s ball handling includes a nifty hesitation dribble and a passable isolation crossover to begin a drive but little additional technique. He is notably right-hand dominant. More worrisome is his inability to function against determined defensive pressure, as painfully demonstrated in the rookie’s 0 point, 2 shot disappearing act against the bulldog Celtic defense of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart.
To orchestrate an offense, a player has to be able to dribble. He has to maintain his dribble when other players pick up the ball, advance his dribble into areas of the court the defense staunchly defends, keep the dribble alive when double teamed, and do all of this without losing awareness of every teammate’s place on the floor and, for the truly great, every defender’s as well.
Based on the evidence thus far, Dante Exum is unlikely to become a prototypical franchise player, but he could become a unique All-NBA talent. Watch him with the ball in his hands before the shot or the pass, because he’ll meet or fail expectations right there.