What Exum’s Injury Means to Him, His Future, the Jazz

October 8th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Brent Asay via utahjazz.com

Right up until the moment when 230 pounds of shooting guard landed right on top of him, Dante Exum was having a terrific preseason.

In fact, few Jazz players were playing as impressively relative to expectations and the development questions facing them. Exum was averaging 21 points and 9 assists per 36 minutes, with 60% true shooting, a 39% assist ratio and just one turnover. He was attacking, creating, having fun and drawing praise from a coach who last year nailed the guard’s shorts to the Jazz bench for games at a time.

His collision with Suns guard TJ Warren brought at abrupt halt to that momentum. Warren jumped late to challenge an Exum layup attempt in transition. He landed on top of the 22-year-old Aussie, whose scoop shot had already bounced off the backboard. The two fell to hardwood together, Warren on top of the 190-pound Exum. The latter used his left arm to break the fall of more than 400 pounds’ worth of basketball players, and something in his shoulder gave way. Per reports on Saturday from both Tony Jones at the Salt Lake Tribune and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnaroski, Exum sustained serious ligament damage and could miss the entire 2017-18 regular season.

What it means for Exum

Minutes after the Jazz’s draft spot was cemented at the 2014 draft lottery, GM Dennis Lindsey reiterated to me that the Jazz hoped to use that spot to select a star. “That’s a big mission and charge,” he said that night, “to find someone that can define how we play.” Few people still dare to talk that way about Exum, especially after a season lost to ACL reconstruction and rehab and then an up-and-down campaign as he returned to play 64 games last season. But there’s still unexplored potential in Exum, and the club was anxious to find out just how much.

By all accounts, the former top-five pick had an impressive offseason, and the results had begun to show. He opened the preseason looking like a more confident, aggressive and decisive version of himself. Jazz power forward Derrick Favors told Kyle Goon on Friday night that Exum had been one of the best guys in camp.

He wasn’t doing anything wildly different, but the subtle refinements had been paying big dividends. For example, his dribble was visibly tighter, and the freedom of roaming into the lane without stressing about ball security was allowing Exum to keep his head up and read the seams in shifting defenses. The game was slowing down for him, and and off-season of focused skills work gave him opportunities to make an impact in each of his stints.

If he really does miss all or most of the season with this new injury, the most frustrating part of the ordeal is that it will disrupt that progress. The Jazz still don’t know exactly what they have in Exum, but this was going to be the year they’d start to find out. It was supposed to be a season about him building on a reportedly strong off-season and a growing understanding of the NBA game.

But now, even if he doesn’t miss the entire year, 2017-18 is now a season about Dante’s shoulder. Let’s say — 100% hypothetically — that the Jazz get him back sometime around the All-Star break. That doesn’t mean he’ll walk back onto the floor and start whipping the same passes and making the same daring drives that he did in two and a half exhibition games. Whenever he returns, we’ll see him easing his way back in, relearning the timing and reads that now, finally, were beginning to look less complicated for the youngster.

Players do get back on track after injuries. It’s not like his career is doomed now. Exum’s own strong play before Warren mounted him on Friday night is a good indication that players can restore a developmental arc even after dealing with serious injury and gobs of missed time.

But it will be a while before Exum’s attention is again fully focused on realizing his potential as a basketball player. Things we might have begun to learn about him this fall — and stuff he might have started to prove to himself — will now have to wait.

Exum’s future

Remember, aside from the injury stuff, Exum also took a year off to train leading up to the 2014 draft. That means that, depending on how this injury plays out, he could hit free agency next summer having played basketball for just two of the previous five years.

  • 2013-14: Preparing for NBA Draft.
  • 2014-15: Rookie season in which Exum established himself as a solid defender & claimed the starting PG spot away from the currently unsigned Trey Burke.
  • 2015-16: Season lost to rehabilitation after knee surgery.
  • 2016-17: An up-and-down return to the court for Exum; played 64 games and was in and out of Quin Snyder’s rotation.
  • 2017-18: Shoulder injury, status for full season TBD.

That’s clearly not the best body of work to take into a free agent negotiation. There are undoubtedly still teams that believe in Exum’s potential — and the Jazz are likely one of them — but it’s worth thinking for a moment about how this latest setback will impact his next contract.

The Jazz and Exum could still agree by October 16 to extend his current deal. They could add up to four years1, if the two sides could find a dollar value they agree on. Non-star guards who have extended this fall have landed in the $42 to $50 million range for a four-year extension, such as the deals secured by Norm Powell, Josh Richardson and, coincidentally, Warren. Exum’s representation would point to the fact that none of those were top-five picks with an elite NBA tool quite like Exum’s speed, but based on ’16-17 production alone, that’s probably the tier to look at as a starting point for market value.

An extension in the 40s could turn out to be a screaming deal if the gamble pays off. The Warriors placed a smart bet on Steph Curry with a 4/$44M extension back in 20122 when there were still massive questions about his durability and before he was a surefire star. But Curry became an All-Star in the first season after his new deal kicked in, and before the extension ran out, he was a two-time MVP that had brought two Larry O’Brien trophies back to the Bay Area.

But other bets on enigmatic guards haven’t paid off quite the same way. Ty Lawson extended that same summer for around the same money, and by the end of that contract, he was a struggling reserve who in fact agreed to remove the salary protection on part of his fourth-year salary just to get a fresh start elsewhere. Tyreke Evans didn’t extend, but rather agreed to a 4/$44M deal with New Orleans, and has since seen his production tail off. Jrue Holiday signed a four-year extension in the low 40s, promptly validated it with an All-Star selection in the last year of his rookie deal, and then missed an average of 30.5 games per season during that contract term. So for every Steph, there are a few examples of teams who bet on the come and never quite saw the expected payoff.

The Jazz might not be willing to offer that price range anyway, based on Exum’s 148-game résumé. And if they’re offering much less, it’s hard to imagine a deal getting done, unless the latest episode changes the point guard’s calculation on career security. Maybe he’d be more inclined to lock in at less than his peers after seeing his basketball future and financial security again flash before his eyes. But it’s far more likely that both parties will want to wait.

If no extension agreement were reached, Exum would enter restricted free agency next July, provided that the Jazz tendered him a qualifying offer. Exum’s QO would be $4,187,5983, so as long as the Jazz offered that amount, they’d have the right to match any deal offered to Exum by another team. (Although there is a catch for the Jazz: teams are required to reserve a certain amount on their cap sheet to retain free agents, and in Exum’s case, that’s nearly a $15 million hold that could keep them from swinging other deals.)

Players have the option of signing the one-year QO, waiting out the year, and then becoming an unrestricted free agent. But it’s hard to imagine Exum doing that since that $4.19M figure is literally less than his current salary.

So the most likely outcome is that no extension is signed, the Jazz extend the $4.19M offer next summer, and Exum becomes a restricted free agent. At that point, he either negotiates a long-term deal to stay in Utah, or another team signs him and Utah has a decision to make. Exum would still be negotiating on the basis of a résumé limited by injuries, but he could use other teams’ faith in his skill set to drive the price higher than what Utah might readily offer.

Options the ’17-18 Jazz

In the meantime, the Jazz have to figure out how to mitigate the effect Exum’s absence will have on their current team.

The obvious immediate impact of Exum’s injury is that, for whatever time he misses, the club will have to depend more on starter Ricky Rubio. The Spanish guard has struggled so far in preseason play, but assuming he ultimately acclimates to his new squad, he should be able to carry a big load. He has average right around 32 minutes per game in six NBA seasons.

That still leaves Utah with 16 minutes worth of nightly need at the point guard position. Rookie Donovan Mitchell assumed the mantle on Friday night, but that isn’t how the Jazz had really envisioned using him. He has mostly been practicing as a two-guard, and he’s obviously still working on his awareness and decision-making at NBA game speed. If he runs the Jazz offense for a third of each game, there will be nights when the Jazz second unit struggles.

They could lessen those growing pains by shifting more ball-handling duties to backup shooting guard Alec Burks, or by staggering playmaking forward Joe Ingles into reserve lineups. The other option is to promote Raul Neto back to the second PG spot. He has done well with rotation minutes in previous seasons, and knows the Jazz system and personnel well. But it would cost someone else rotation minutes — probably Mitchell or Burks.

They could also sign another player, but the options are slim in mid-October. Most NBA-caliber points are signed by this stage, so anybody the Jazz could pick up would undoubtedly have some flaws. They could apply for a salary cap exception in the amount of half of Exum’s salary to sign another player, but it wouldn’t give them much of an advantage. Anybody they’d sign at this point would be a minimum salary-tier player anyway. The exception would allow them to offer around $2.49M, whereas they could sign a veteran player to close to that amount ($2.33M) and only have to pay a fraction of that ($1.47M) after the league subsidizes a chunk of what NBA teams pay on one-year vet minimum contracts. So an exception wouldn’t really help.

The top available PGs (by ’16-17 Win Shares) are:

  • Lawson (3.2) – Not likely to be a fit.
  • Deron Williams (2.4) – But before you get excited, this is unemployed 2017 DW, a shadow of the former Jazz All-Star. Williams was a below-average starter in Dallas last year before signing on as a decent bench contributor with the Cavs.
  • Brandon Jennings (1.7) – Currently signed in China.
  • CJ Watson (0.9) – Used to be a solid rotation player.
  • Sergio Rodriguez (0.7) – Rubio’s countryman.
  • Leandro Barbosa (0.6) – No longer the Brazilian blur.
  • Burke (0.5) – Yeah, probably not.

(Some guards could also wind up being part of another team’s fall cuts, just as Ingles was claimed by the Jazz in 2014 after the Clippers opted not to keep him on their final roster.)

Even if the Jazz wanted to sign someone off that list, they’d have to do some roster maneuvering. They currently have 15 guaranteed contracts, plus Neto’s non-guaranteed deal. To make room for one of those players, they’d have to cut Neto and someone like Royce O’Neale or Joel Bolomboy. As it stands, they’ll already need to cut one of those three.

Whatever they choose to do, Exum will be missed. The 22-year-old looked like he was on the verge of putting things together. Now, he and the Jazz will have to wait.

 

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, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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5 Comments

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Why couldn’t it be Gordon Hayward who got injured, rather than Exum?

  2. John Jenkins says:

    If the Jazz and Dante are smart he signs an extension at a higher salary, but not at the salary he would have had. He is on the door step of becoming a dynamic and important player, but moving into another system will set him back even more.

  3. Brent says:

    This is why Dennis Lindsey signed Nate Wolters to a 2 way contract. He is essentially an insurance piece against Dante or Rubio going down for a significant amount of time. Both have missed significant time in the past. As a rookie his win shares were 1.2. Last year in Euroleague his per 36 minuets were 17.5 points, 5 Ast. on 45% shooting from 2 and 33% from 3.

  4. Shane Hardcastle says:

    Dante Exum is a waste of a number 5 pick move on he is a child in a man’s league wag him well but really move on Jazz he sucks he’s s0 year old punk with potential what a laugh say good bye!

  5. Waste of a number 5 pick he’s a child in the NBA

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