Using History to Determine Dante Exum’s Potential

February 11th, 2015 | by Clint Johnson
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Forget now, who will I be five years from now? (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

18 Comments

  1. Dustin says:

    Wow, great article! I’ve always thought his skills match an orchestrator. Good point about his ball-handling being the key skill for him. He can be elite defensively I think which is the one advantage of being 6’6″ even if offensively he never becomes elite.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think we’re seeing the same things, Dustin. The rapidity of his defensive impact is encouraging, no question. Now everyone, from coaches to teammates to fans, has to be patient as he grows into a role far larger, and more nuanced, than he is currently capable of filling. Personally, I almost don’t care about his shooting. I believe respectable shooting will come. It’s his ability to maintain his dribble against resistance and begin to break the paint with greater frequency that I watch. My guess is he’ll only show significant improvement in those areas late next season, or perhaps even the season after, because he’s made such a jump in competition. For now, it’s small signs I’m looking for.

  2. Robbie says:

    The funny part is he was being sold as an explosive scorer pre-draft but always maintain he was an orchestrator…

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Personally, I thought it was always pretty apparent that, whatever he would be, he was in extremely early stages of development. I covered the 2014 draft for SCH, and one of the areas where I received most frequent skepticism was my claim that Exum was a shooting guard. I didn’t expect him to have the ability to handle the ball well enough to run an offense, and I thought his physical limitations, in spite of his amble physical advantages, would make it tough for him to score quickly. He always saw himself as a point guard, but I think he’s realized what that means against this level of competition.

  3. Mewko says:

    Great article. I’m not worried about Dante’s jump shots. Every player can be a gym rat, and be working solely on the jump shot. Gordon Hayward’s been doing it this year. And if you saw his stroke at the N.O.P…………. man it was pure, smooth shooting mechanics.

    I think Dante can be elite defensively, and be the star-stopper for point guards.
    For offense, I don’t realistically see Dante being one of the premier superstars, or MVP candidates. Those types of guys are Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Stephen Curry.
    The Atlanta Hawks’ recent run is a good sign for Jazz fans. They don’t have a true superstar, but are dominating with team ball. I think Dante can be on the all NBA 1st team once in his career. But it will have to be a special year where he wins a title, and a couple guys get injured too much to qualify.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      It’s hard to confidently project Exum because he has even more variables than an average rookie: he’s younger than most (though not by all that much), comes from a mediocre competitive background, and has a really uncommon mixture of physical profile and skills. The result is a huge range in possible outcomes: he could be truly great, or he could never really find a role he fits well and be a journeyman player. I’m extremely confident in Quin Snyder, especially in the development of perimeter players, so I’m not worried. But I don’t think there’s a debate that the Jazz accepted a lot of risk when the swung for the fences by drafting Exum.

  4. telochian says:

    An interesting analysis however I don’t think you can judge his power/explosiveness based on what we’ve seen so far regardless of what Derek Rose was doing at the same age (or earlier). Most of the guys you’ve mentioned in the analysis have been in the weight room since high school, Exum came in looking more like an IT guy than an NBA player. A summer in the weight room and we’ll start to be able to gauge his athletic potential. I think overall conditioning and strength will have flow on effects throughout his game, just look at how much stronger and aggressive Hayward is this season.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Actually, a lot of these players weren’t hitting weights heavily in their late teens. Beyond that, jumping ability is largely an innate characteristic that expresses with overall level of fitness. The truth is, Exum worked all day long with some of the best personal trainers money could buy for months before the draft. In terms of simply physicality, he was in great (if non-basketball) shape going into the draft. Conditioning will certainly improve, and I believe strength will as well (though not as much as some would hope, as I think that would come at the cost of his speed). But I think his explosiveness is largely innate and will change little. We’ll see.

      • telochian says:

        I agree that explosiveness is innate, but how many players have we seen that are/were explosive need time and basketball to get it back after injuries or just plain being out of shape. When I look at Exum playing, I regularly see him laboring up the court especially after back to backs. He simply hasn’t got his legs under him yet and may not all season. Exum has shown flashes of explosiveness, I remember a put back dunk after a whistle a few months ago that showed that while he may never win a dunk contest, he can certainly play above the rim. While explosiveness is innate, if your conditioning isn’t where it needs to be, it’s the first thing to leave a player and the last thing to return.

        • Clint Johnson says:

          Maybe. But I think I watched every scrap of film on Exum available to the public at least five times while covering the draft. He can dunk, certainly; he can even dunk from a near standstill because of his length. But that doesn’t mean he can play about the rim, certainly not while jousting with a defender.

  5. Matt says:

    From the scouting videos, I didn’t think he’d be a scoring machine ala Jordan or Kobe but figured he had potential to score 15-20 ppg to go with 8-10 apg with potential lock-down defense. I thought he looked like a pass-first 6-6 version of Rose with his speed and ability to get most anywhere on the court.

    Given that he’s still 19 and was playing HS basketball in Australia just over one year ago, I’m more inclined to modify, rather than abandon, that prediction.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      17 and 9 with great defense? I think that may be optimistically reasonable. The major difference is Rose could get where he wanted, but then if a defender stayed with him, he could jump over them while taking contact to score. I think Exum will be quite vulnerable to good, physical defense on the interior throughout his career. He’ll depend on separation, angles, and dribble trickery inside, which is why his ball handling is so paramount.

  6. Spencer says:

    Great article. telochian made a great point that should be considered here. Dante was nowhere close to where he needed to be physically to start an NBA season. His strength and conditioning were at all-time poor levels. Because of that, if he truly has the work ethic, over the next three seasons he will create his body. Then, we can do a re-evaluation. That said, I think you are absolutely correct on his ceiling no matter what his physical progress is. Tony parker with more length and all-NBA defense is more than I expect, but what I would call best-case scenario.

    My hope is that Dante can make the same physical progress that Gobert made from year one to year two.

    I also fully agree with the ball-handling observation.

    The truth is, it will take five years before we really know what we will be getting with him. That would put him at the start of his second contract. Not really a bad time to take it to the next level for the Jazz. He could then be a lower priced keeper like Curry for GS.

    With that in mind, I say we go hard after Dragic this summer and Middleton. Then do everything in our power to get Russell.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      To be honest, I don’t think Exum was in poor condition at the start of the NBA season. He wasn’t in NBA basketball shape, certainly, but I don’t think we’re seeing some physical fraction of his full ability. To the contrary, he spent five straight months training for the draft with Rob McClanaghan, a guy who works with Durant, Rose, Curry, and Love. I don’t know the particulars of that work, but I suspect it had him in as good a shape physically as he’s reached in his life. I think what we’re seeing is what he’s got, and anything more will be built primarily through maturation and lots and lots of work.

      Longer, better defensive Tony Parker is the ceiling I see for him as well. Does he reach it? Hopefully, but most players don’t reach their ceilings, if you ask me.

      The Jazz will be patient, but if Exum is only getting toward his peak in five years, I think that’s a problem. I think he needs to show he’s on a trajectory toward being a very good player by 2016-2017. If we haven’t seen enough signs then, I’ll start to worry.

      I like Dragic and/or Middleton for the Jazz. If by Russell you mean Westbrook, personally, I don’t see that happening. I agreed with Sam Presti’s trade of James Harden at the time, but it’s hard to argue now that it wasn’t a mistake. They aren’t going to let another franchise-level player go.

  7. Matt P says:

    What worries me most is the tentativeness, the lack of willingness to drive, the fear of failure. I tend to shy away from analysis of “intangibles,” but can you be a very good NBA player if you’re not super cocky? If you don’t assume you’ll succeed? Exum doesn’t seem to be wired that way. He seems wired to be a decent teammate, who fits in, who doesn’t stand out. And, oddly, that worries me.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I see your point, but I’m far from worried yet. Most learning takes place at the fastest rate when the level of challenge is moderate rather than extreme. Right now, he’s learning rather slowly because he’s swimming in an attempt not to sink. Once he passes this stage and gets to the point where the game is a little more a known quantity (as are his teammates), he’ll start to show more signs of growth more frequently. But, and I can’t help but come back to this, the most essential component to his growth is ball handling. If that doesn’t substantially improve, he’ll stay caught between positions and unable to put his greatest assets to best effect. Frankly, I believe that scenario would be a fairly major misstep in Jazz history as I think Marcus Smart will be a significant player in the league and may become a real force.

  8. Rob Hein says:

    Nice article. I’ve always seen Exum as a wing player in the mold of Barbosa/Ceballos. It’s too early to pass judgement, but as a Celtics fan, we like the pick.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think those comps are reasonable if he stays with his current trajectory of playing off guard. Not what the Jazz wanted with that pick, I’ll tell you that.

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