How much should we adjust our expectations of Dante Exum after seeing him in the 2016 preseason?
Exum could have an awesome, rock-star year where he surprises us with a series of The Exum Games. He could also look like a 21-year-old coming back from an ACL tear and surgery, a player who has played one year of the last three. That’s not a prime circumstance for anyone, let alone a kid born in 1995 with minimal experience under his belt.
After the first couple of exhibition games, I figured I should completely decrease my expectations of Exum, right back to square one. He tallied six and five points in those outings, with some good flashes of defense, but an overall tepid return to the game after a year off. Then came the Clippers game in LA. I sat in the second row for that game1, and attended with high hopes for an aggressive, effective performance by Exum. Instead, he mostly stood in the corner on offense. But he made his mark elsewhere.
In the fourth quarter, the Clippers were getting pretty much everything they wanted. Quin Snyder opted to insert Exum to defend down the stretch, and the game completely changed. His defensive performance culminated with back-to-back late stops, including a strip of super sub Jamal Crawford that sealed the win. It served as a reminder that, while other aspects of Exum’s game may take some time to develop, he’s already pretty elite on D, and that’s big from the point guard position. In three minutes’ time, he completely altered the game, without doing anything on the offensive end. That’s huge.
In the two games following that, Exum seemed to benefit from increased confidence and comfort — and at least one poor opponent. The Australian had 18 points against Phoenix (and 8-9 at the line!), and 15 points against Portland (5-6 from the line!). Now I’m more (cautiously) excited. Are some of the following enough to warrant raising my recently lowered expectations of Exum? Let’s take a look:
Increased free throw rate. Dante had a higher FT rate in preseason than he did in 2014-2015. He averaged just over 3 FTA/game this preseason, though he still had three games where he didn’t make a single trip to the line. That’s because in the other three games, he earned four, nine and six. In the 2014-2015 season, he averaged 0.4 FTA per game. In his rookie season, in fact, he only had three games where he attempted more than 2 FTA in a game2. If Exum continues this increased FT rate, it shows growth and improvement in several areas: he’ll be more efficient and he’ll be driving more, with a side effect of the latter that he’ll hopefully be passing more on drives-and-kicks, too. This increased aggressiveness will be huge for Exum and the Jazz.
Improved 2pt% and FT%. While Dante’s 3pt% took a slight dip in the preseason compared to his rookie year (31.4% to 29.4%), his overall True Shooting % increased, from .457 his rookie season to .506 in six preseason games. Dante seemed to get into the lane with much greater ease than in his rookie season, and while he sometimes got stuck or didn’t know what move to make next, he had more instances where he converted a short shot or a floater, increasing his 2pt%. Luckily, that improved shooting percentage also extended to the free-throw line, where he shot 73.7% in preseason compared to 62.5% in his rookie year. Given that he may spend more time on the line this year, that increase could prove to be very helpful.
Defense. This seems like such a constant now, a gimmie. But remember when Dante was drafted and the knock on him was that he couldn’t defend? That seems like such a long time ago. With his height and length at PG, he can crowd opposing points or switch onto their shooting guard, creating all sorts of problems. Jamal Crawford loves shooting at the end of games3, but was rendered ineffective in the final possessions of the October 10 preseason game thanks to Dante’s stifling defense.
Inconsistency. This is common for younger players; we saw it with Gordon Hayward, and we’re seeing Rodney Hood working his way through it right now. Dante had a couple clunkers this preseason from an offensive perspective: 2-for-9 from the field for 4 points in the preseason finale, which had followed 18-point and 15-point games, and those were preceded by a 3-point game in Los Angeles. The up-and-down preseason is probably an indicator of things to come this season, so expectations should be tempered to account for that.
Decision-Making. While Dante was more aggressive this preseason and drove to the paint more, there were still plenty of instances where he didn’t always know what to do when he got there. This is new territory for him, and it’ll take time for him to make the decision, and then go. He’s discussed this over the last month, but just the fact he’s willing to drive more and be more aggressive is an overall plus as he figures out what to do once there (the minus). Along similar lines, Exum still has moments of disappearing on offense and hiding out in the corner. Hopefully, as he gets more comfortable with his role and what he can and can’t do, he’ll find more spots within the offense where he can be effective.
Overall, the preseason showed enough glimpses of what Dante can do to where I’m raising my expectations for his season (after lowering them post-ACL injury). With more aggressive play, a better free-throw rate, and better shooting, in tandem with his already-elite defense, we’ll see a pretty good version of Dante Exum this season. The kid’s going to be really good.