In both of the Utah Jazz’s preseason games, all eyes have been squarely on Dante Exum. After missing all of last season with an ACL injury, the Australian point guard hasn’t lost any of the high expectations that preceded his injury. But along with expectations comes criticism, of which he has also gathered plenty.
The majority of the criticism has not been in regards to his natural physical abilities. At 6-foot-6 with plenty of speed, there is no doubt that the former fifth overall draft pick is skilled. The complaints have been directed towards Exum’s decision-making.
In the first preseason game in Portland, Exum repeatedly penetrated the lane, much to the delight of Jazz fans eager to see him be more aggressive. After all, he only shot 32 free throws ALL SEASON in 2014-15. Sometimes it seems like James Harden takes that many free throws in a single night.
Yet, despite his driving into the paint area, Exum struggled to find the rim. He scored all six of his points against the Blazers from beyond the arc. He didn’t necessarily create a lot of chances either, finishing with just two assists in 22 minutes.
Whether he was gun-shy coming back from his injury, rusty from months of sitting on the bench, or just a young, relatively inexperienced point guard, Exum didn’t make the correct play.
To his credit, he’s aware of his need to improve, per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News:
“I think it’s just about making that decision once I get in there,” Exum said. “I thought I got into the lane but didn’t make the right decision a couple of times. I had a lot of coaches pointing that out to me. I think it’s just a reps thing and it’ll come.”
To judge any single player or the team as a whole based on one or two preseason games is of course silly, and in the next game against the Phoenix Suns, Exum showed his capacity to learn and adapt based on his previous mistakes.
Twice in the middle of the first quarter, Exum drove the lane and completed a sweet dish, first to Rudy Gobert and then to Gordon Hayward for the easy step-and-dunk. Later, Exum had another opening to the basket, but rather than attempting to complete the trifecta of in-the-lane passes, Exum scooped in a finger-roll for two of his own. Although he left the game early after banging his knee on an empty seat under the basket, he finished with four assists in 13 minutes of floor time.
It was a simple sequence of plays, but it was very encouraging given some of Exum’s prior struggles. The ability to keep defenders guessing as to whether he’ll take it himself or dish it off to any one of his more-than capable teammates will be vital to his progression, especially as he makes becoming a threat near the basket an emphasis in his game.
In other words, Exum isn’t there yet, but clearly he can get there if he continues to grow from his miscues. And with Hayward set to miss some time due to a finger injury, the youngster may get a bigger opportunity to do so.