It’s been a long two months since I’ve done it, but I’m on a good path now. —Dante Exum
SALT LAKE CITY — While his teammates played around Hawaii (in multiple ways), Jazz point guard Dante Exum remained in Utah to rehab his surgically repaired knee.
The 20-year-old smiled when jokingly told that the Jazz owe him a Hawaii trip.
“Don’t worry,” Exum said. “It will be written into my next contract.”
Though he didn’t get to participate in that fun Oahu adventure — and he’s obviously bummed to miss out on a full season of his basketball career — Exum is maintaining a positive attitude during what figures to be a lengthy rehabilitation process.
“It’s been a long two months since I’ve done it,” he said, “but I’m on a good path now.”
As a refresher, Exum was playing with the Australian national team in an international friendly in Slovenia when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while driving to the basket.
Exum’s knee buckled as he tried to plant his left foot to make a move and get a better shooting angle, and that’s when the unfortunate injury happened.
“It felt like when I landed that my foot kind of slipped under me a bit,” Exum recalled, “and then I obviously went to jump and push, and that’s when I felt the pop.”
Exum’s mind was flooded with a variety of thoughts as it happened.
“Everything runs through your mind. You think about the Jazz, what everyone’s going to think,” he said. “‘What have you done?’ That was the first thing that came. I knew it was my ACL pretty much as soon as I did it. The doctor told me pretty much straight away.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz also felt the pop — and a lot of sympathy — on the other side of the world.
Exum had his struggles as a rookie after being picked fifth overall in the 2014 NBA draft, but the 6-foot-6 Aussie was a better-than-expected defender and showed offensive promise. He returned to Utah for two months of intensive training leading up to summer league action, and people around the organization were thrilled with the quick progress he’d made.
Without Exum, the Jazz have the challenge of trying to tackle this season with one point guard who’s had an inconsistent first two years in Trey Burke and two backups who are very inexperienced in rookie Raul Neto and D-League call-up Bryce Cotton. Utah is even planning on going with a three-wing lineup that doesn’t feature an actual point guard as a way to compensate for Exum’s absence.
“We’re going to grow with these guys,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said at the beginning of camp.
While his teammates adapt to life without Exum, he’s trying to make the most out of not being able to play with them.
That’s not easy.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s horrible,” Exum said when asked about watching preseason games. “It’s tough. I keep trying to remind myself to think of it as a positive, try to learn.”
If you were to observe Exum walking, you might be surprised to find out he had surgery performed on his knee just six weeks ago. His long legs seem to stride effortlessly and without a visible limp. He doesn’t wear a brace or use crutches.
“I’ve actually, surprising, I’ve had no pain,” Exum said.
Aside from not being able to play basketball, the worst part was staying in bed for a week or two after the torn ACL was mended.
“But ever since then,” he added, “I’ve been up and about and feeling good.”
Exum credits a month of annoying prehab work in Utah for helping prepare him for the surgery, which was delayed while he focused on building his quadriceps muscle in his left leg, building up flexibility and allowing his body to flush out the swelling.
“The prehab — as much as I hated it, it was really good for me,” he said. “I saw the results coming out of the surgery. I was still able to lift my leg up on its own. The strength was still there as much as I’d lost. That was the biggest thing. It’s helped me to be able to walk sooner, get off the crutches and out of the brace, just because of that.”
Exum openly expresses gratitude to the Jazz organization for its support, which was immediate and has been ongoing. General manager Dennis Lindsey had Exum return to the States shortly after the injury and expressed sincere concern for his player’s long-term health. Assistant coach Lamar Skeeter provided helpful advice, having gone through multiple knee surgeries himself.
Players, coaches and the staff have been there to help Exum in multiple ways — from training to playful camaraderie needed to keep spirits high. He called it a “no-brainer” to do his extensive rehab in Utah rather than return to Australia.
“I think everyone around the Jazz have helped in their own little way,” Exum said.
“He’s great, I think. He’s Dante of old mostly — minus a few things in his knee,” teammate and fellow Australian Joe Ingles said. “He knows what’s ahead of him. He’s working hard. Everyone obviously will keep supporting him.”
And, yes, Exum has been peppered with the obvious question: When will he be back?
He knows what the surgeon told him — that he “was confident” that he’ll get a full recovery. He doesn’t know an exact timetable for his eventual return.
“At this point, I’m not too sure,” he said. “It’s just a matter of taking it day by day, week by week and month by month — just (see) how my body feels and how the rehab’s going.”
Soon, his rehab will allow him to begin running again. He’ll have to continue to build strength in the knee, doing things like squats and single-leg balancing. Then, Exum knows there will be a mental test — “finding that mental state of mind,” he called it — even after he’s cleared physically and isn’t favoring one leg over the other.
Exum is often reminded that his youth plays in his favor, and he’s grateful for that. He’s also glad to have an opportunity to better learn the game from the sidelines, something that greatly helped Alec Burks during his rehab from shoulder surgery.
Exum already has a database of NBA experience to draw from. He knows what he does well and needs to improve on. Now, he’ll be able to work on his shot, sit down with coaches for detailed teaching sessions and observe the game.
When he’s ready to return, Exum hopes he’ll be better than ever from this whole experience.
But he’s not in a rush or letting not being able to play gnaw at him.
“At the moment, I’m not worrying about it,” Exum said. “I just want to be around the team, obviously still learn all the plays and everything, be able to say what I need to say when I can. When it comes it comes to when I’m ready, I’ll be ready.”
No doubt, he'll be ready for that Hawaii trip, too.
EMAIL: [email protected]