SALT LAKE CITY — As the players were making their rounds at Utah Jazz Media Day, there was a logjam at the live-stream interview for utahjazz.com. Both Shelvin Mack and Jeff Withey wanted to take their turn being interviewed by Jazz media personalities David Locke and Ron Boone. A game of rock-paper-scissors ensued. While the two were caught up in that, Dante Exum appeared from out of nowhere and plopped down in the empty seat.
Locke and Boone exploded in laughter. Exum had asserted himself in a way that never would have happened two years ago when he was a baby-faced 18-year old rookie. It was a big time veteran move. It was a whole new Exum.
But who is Dante Exum?
The fifth overall pick from 2014 still shoulders enormous expectations. Luckily, he’s added some much-needed bulk to carry such an onus, as well as help guide his 6-foot-6 frame through a strenuous NBA season. He’ll need all the help he can get since missing all of last season after he tore the ACL in his left knee.
Exum has reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle, yet beyond any new physical strength, chances are good that a large part of any new found strength is mental. It didn’t come easy.
“Sitting out of games, I think that was the hardest thing,” said the 20-year from Melbourne, Australia. “Coming to practice and having to watch them get better each day, no athlete wants to go through that.”
It was watching from the sidelines that gave him the motivation to not only rehab his injury, but also to increase his basketball IQ and learn exactly what Quin Snyder expects of his Jazz squad.
“I learned a lot. I think the most important thing was in terms of running a team. Being next to a coach and them [his teammates] coming down and running a play, I get to see what Quin is doing when he’s turning behind the coaches, and what plays they’re trying to run and the style of play they’re trying to put out on the floor. So as much as I can learn that and put that into my head, I don’t need to look out to the coaches when I’m on the floor.”
So he’s bigger and smarter? What more can be expected of a guy who hasn’t played but one of the last three seasons. Remember, he sat out of competitive action the year before he was drafted.
According to Coach Snyder, Exum looks like did when he and the Jazz were playing at their best at the tail end of the 2014-15 season.
“Physically, he looks great,” said Snyder. “He looks like the guy we had at the end of two years ago.” He continued, “The hope was that he would continue to get better, and in some ways, that’s happened.”
Bigger, smarter, and overall, just better? But what if he’s just not ready? Despite what his wispy new mustache would try to tell you, Exum is still just a 20-year old. Wouldn’t it be asking a lot of a guy who is coming off of a major injury to immediately lead a team with high playoff aspirations?
That’s where George Hill comes in.
Hill is the perfect man for the time to win now and the time to hand the reins over to Exum full-time. Hill is an eight-year veteran with playoff experience on both the Spurs and the Pacers. However, the most encouraging thing that he brings to the Jazz is his mindset. He understands his role as a mentor to Exum and the rest of a young, playoff-inexperienced team. After all, he learned from one of the best while he was a young up-and-comer with the Spurs.
“In San Antonio, I was a young rookie and didn’t know any better, and Tim [Duncan] did the same thing with me. He put his arm around me and kind of led me the way and as a rookie, I needed that. Me coming in here, that’s what we need, a little veteran leadership. So if I see something that makes [Exum’s] game a little better, I try to do that.”
So if the expectations for Exum are too much for now, Hill is more than happy to shoulder some of it for him. That is something Hill is totally capable of doing, especially considering how broad his literal and figurative shoulders are.
There might not be a complete picture of who Exum is. But if his actions in the media day circus and the praise of his coach and the encouragement of his new mentor are any indication, he’s definitely someone to watch closely.