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How Much Will Dante Exum’s Injury Hurt the Utah Jazz?

Any fan of basketball will tell you injuries suck. The latest example of that sad proclamation is Dante Exum, the promising Utah Jazz youngster.

According to Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

 Team officials believe Utah’s starting point guard tore his left anterior cruciate ligament Tuesday while playing for the Australian national team, though the Jazz are awaiting further medical examination to know for sure. Exum was in transit from Europe to Utah on Wednesday, and, barring a delay, the Jazz expected him to be evaluated Thursday.

And there won’t be any rush for him to return, as Jones quotes orthopedic surgeon Roy Trawick:

The first three months after you reconstruct an ACL, you can’t rush Mother Nature,” he said. “It takes three months for the graft to heal solidly. Beyond that, it becomes a functional issue — strength, endurance, getting back that quick burst, being able to plant and cut confidently. Typically, I won’t give an OK until six months out, but that’s just a ballpark number. It really depends on how the athlete comes around. Obviously Dante is a supreme athlete and he’s going to be rehabbed every single day.

Derrick Rose missed an entire season after tearing his ACL, and it’s not impossible that Exum takes the same precaution. For a kid who’s just 20 years old, it’s better to think of the future than the present. What do the Jazz lose this year without him?

A cursory glance at the stats would suggest the loss isn’t great. After all, he averaged just 4.8 points and 2.4 assists on the season. Trey Burke, who’s likely to step into the starting role he lost to Exum last season, averaged 12.8 points and 4.3 assists.

So if one is looking just at the numbers, it looks like this isn’t a major loss. However, this is one of those cases of the box score numbers not telling the whole story. There’s a reason Exum took over as the starter in spite of his inferior production.

Perhaps the most critical of those is defense. For a player still under 20, Exum is shockingly mature on the less-sexy side of the ball. Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney observes:

While the Jazz wait for Exum to cross that career threshold, they can lean on more immediate defensive returns. No rookie comes into the NBA a fully formed defender. Exum, though, is already impressive for how he bothers opposing point guards with his length and maneuvers to complicate their drives…

That no rookie comes into the NBA a fully formed defender works as something of an omen, in Exum’s case—that he’s already so pesky and effective warns of how suffocating the rookie might soon become. By having the quickness of a point guard and the size of a wing, Exum’s close-outs and double-teams take on an elastic quality valuable to Utah’s resurgent defense. In fact, the Jazz lead the NBA in defensive rating (87.1 points per 100 possessions) since the All-Star break.

Last season, two things happened to the Jazz around the All-Star Game/trade deadline: They traded Enes Kanter, and they put Exum into the starting lineup. Before they did those two things, they were the 27th-ranked defense. After they did them, they were the top-ranked defense.

Dashboard 1 (17)

And while, after the Kanter trade, the defense was about the same whichever point guard was on the court, the offense was better when Exum was running it, per the media version of NBA.com/Stats. And it’s worth mentioning that Exum’s performance came against starters while Burke’s came facing reserves.

Dashboard 1 (14)

As Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett points out, the DRPM, which accounts for context, indicates clearly that Utah’s defense was better served by Exum:

Finally, we often look at these things as just the drop-off from the starter to the backup. But the reserve was going to play a portion of those minutes anyway. What’s harder is the minutes the backup’s backup plays. And who that’ll be for the Jazz right now is a bit of a mystery.

There’s a “best-case scenario” where Burke has taken his benching to heart and works on his game this offseason so that he can prove himself. Perhaps the Jazz can get away with lineups that don’t feature a traditional point guard and instead features players like Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood or Alec Burks as the primary ball handler. But whether all this is realistic is another story.

Regardless, the Jazz are going to be without one of the keys to what had rapidly become the league’s best defense and a core part of their identity. And that’s going to hurt their budding hopes of making it to the playoffs next season.

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