The hopes of Utah Jazz fans regarding Dante Exum have been shattered time after time. But maybe, just maybe 2019-20 will be different.
Another season, another disappointing playoff exit for the Utah Jazz.
Another season, another injury-filled campaign for Dante Exum.
Hey, at least there’s some consistency in Salt Lake City, right?
The Utah Jazz were supposed to have a promising 2018-19 campaign. Going into the season, they were picked by many members of the media to finish in the top four in the Western Conference. Some had them going has high as number two. Instead, they finished a disappointing fifth for the third straight year. And this time around, they were unable to advance to round two.
Part of the reason why many were so high on the Jazz heading into the season was that they finished 2017-18 incredibly well, posting a 29-6 record to close out the season before bashing the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one. On top of that, they had all the right elements in place to run things back and improve significantly internally to be an even better and more cohesive team the following year.
Unfortunately, instead the Jazz struggled out of the gates, didn’t have the same power of chemistry for much of the year as they did during their incredible ’17-18 run and, as a whole, didn’t undergo the internal improvements that they hoped.
This last point was perhaps most markedly demonstrated by the season of Dante Exum. Considering that Exum finally was able to put in a fully healthy offseason, many projected that 2018-19 would be his best season yet. Instead, it ultimately winded up going about the same as the rest of his NBA career has been.
Dante appeared in just 42 games as he was once again limited by injuries. He started out the year fine in terms of health for a while, but a severe sprained ankle suffered on January 5th kept him out of action for over two months. Then, when he finally did return, he only lasted three games (in all of which he was held scoreless) before suffering a partially torn patellar tendon that would require surgery and keep him sidelined for the remainder of the season.
As such, in a year where many thought Dante could yet again serve as Utah’s missing piece, he instead became anew a piece that was missing himself. Even when he was healthy to start the year, Exum underwent much of the same growing pains we’ve seen out of him throughout his NBA career – a reckless lack of ball control, an unreliable ability to finish at the rim and questionable decision making.
However, if – and at this point it’s a GIGANTIC IF – Dante Exum can finally stay healthy in 2019-20, he may once again finally be an X-factor for the Utah Jazz. Despite his ups and downs and various struggles prior to suffering the injuries, Exum did have some brilliant moments. In fact, in the five games just before the one in which he went down with the ankle sprain, something seemed to have clicked within Dante and he was beginning to play excellent basketball alongside his Jazz teammates.
He appears to have recognized this as well considering that in a recent sit-down with UtahJazz.com’s Aaron Falk, Exum had the following to say:
“Right before I got my ankle injury, I felt the most confidence I’ve ever had. I was playing well. I felt like I was with the team and knew what everyone was thinking. It clicked in my head that I can do this. I can be a great player.”
For what it’s worth, that entire conversation with Dante is littered with positivity, and it’s great to see him dealing with such a gut-wrenching additional injury with such poise and optimism. If he can continue to keep a level head and somehow finally be bestowed with good fortune from the basketball gods, the Jazz may have something very special in him next year.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking – “It’s absolutely ludicrous to get all giddy about Dante Exum based on a meager streak of five games where he played ‘decently well’ in a season in which he missed nearly half of the total contests.” And those of you thinking that way are absolutely right.
It’s true – the sample size of positive Dante Exum moments is unbearably small. But it still exists and is still enough to bring about hope.
Considering that the Jazz are so starved of offensive creators and players that can get into the paint, having Dante at full speed and full strength is critical. Sure, he has yet to become an ideal finisher, but he can get into the key with the best of them. Once he gets better at making the right reads there – whether to shoot, dish it off, go up to the rim strong and get fouled, etc. – that mere ability to beat defenders off the dribble and create penetration could be revolutionary for an oftentimes stagnant and crowded Jazz offense.
It’s something that the team definitely has needed, especially within its second unit where the hope has long been that Dante could flourish against opposing teams’ reserves. If he gets back to the Exum we saw in late December/early January of this past season on a consistent basis, it could mean great news for a Jazz team that is looking for significant upgrades this summer both inside and outside of their current roster.
But, I know, I know, you’ve heard this one before. This is the same thing we’ve said about Dante before each of the past three seasons. And it has yet to pan out a single time. It’s become a broken record, a never-fulfilled hope and a discouraging narrative. The Jazz still believe in Exum. Based on his recent comments, he still believes in himself. But it’s hard to blame Jazz fans if they’re having a hard time continuing to find that belief themselves.
Still, hope is all fans can hold onto going into an offseason. Heck, several of us are hoping the Jazz land a free agent like Tobias Harris or Kemba Walker, and it’s quite plausible that Dante Exum returning to full strength and being a contributor is more likely than those options, as much as we may want them to come true!
It’s impossible to project what will come of Dante Exum this next year or what the Jazz will do this summer. But if we’re maintaining our optimism, it’s nice to know that if the Aussie can get back some of the former mojo we saw prior to his latest injury bout, he could be an added bonus to a Jazz team that could certainly use his unique set of skills as they aim to continue to advance up the Western Conference Standings.