I'm looking at what he's doing on the court and want him to continue to improve in that. The hope would be that he would get better even though he's out, and in some ways that's happened. —Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — Hall of Famer Allen Iverson might be shocked to hear this, but Dante Exum was exuberant to join his Utah Jazz teammates in the first practice of the 2016-17 season.
Christmas morning excited.
NBA2K release day excited.
First day back on the job for a 20-year-old basketball player who hadn’t formally participated with his team since tearing the ACL in his left knee in 2015 and then missing his entire second season excited.
No lingering pain, side-effects or limitations excited.
Exum, the fifth pick of the 2014 draft, said he’s never been so pumped up for a practice as he was leading up to the beginning of training camp. Sitting out for a year can do that to a hungry and enthusiastic young man.
“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”
Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.
Exum said sitting out of games — especially staying home watching on TV when the team was on the road — was his biggest challenge during that lengthy ordeal. He also struggled seeing his teammates practice and improve while he wasn’t able to do anything on the court. The mental part of this experience, one prolonged by the Jazz’s extra-cautious rehab process, could be more difficult than the physical at times. Even so, he learned patience and got to know his coach's mindset better while sitting behind the bench during games.
“That’s what motivates me,” Exum said of playing in games that matter again. “That’s why I’m so excited to get back to practice and I’m looking forward to every one.
“Yeah, anyone in my situation wants to get back on the court and wants to get there as soon as possible. I realize now that I made the right decision in trusting the Jazz in the rehab process.”
That admission came a day after he said, “I did so much rehab it’s not even funny.”
Exum has been playing at full speed in controlled scrimmages at the Jazz practice facility for a couple of months, but he admitted Tuesday’s first official workout was extra special.
“It was a comfort zone being out there,” he said. “I’m comfortable being out on the floor with my teammates.”
His team, including the guy with whom he’ll battle for minutes, noticed.
“He has high expectations. We hope the best for him here,” new Jazz point guard George Hill said. “We see a lot that he can do and bring to the table. I think today was a step forward for him getting out there, from not playing over a year, getting out there and running up and down in pretty good action. He was in good shape. I like the kid a lot.”
Quin Snyder acknowledged that Exum needs to work on his timing and connecting with teammates, but the Jazz coach admitted that’s pretty much the case for everybody at this juncture. Overall, the former Duke point guard likes what he’s been seeing from his third-year playmaker.
“He has his burst back, did some good things. I don’t seem him as an injured player, I see him as a player,” Snyder said. “I’m looking at what he’s doing on the court and want him to continue to improve in that. The hope would be that he would get better even though he’s out, and in some ways that’s happened.”
Exum said he’s gained 10 pounds of muscle in the past year, which will help the 6-foot-6 point guard with his physical game. He also claimed his shot is “100 percent” better, although he also said his shot is still a bit flat and that he needs to heed Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey’s advice to mentally prepare to shoot before getting the ball.
Exum gained confidence this summer when he successfully attempted the move and shot — an abrupt stop in the paint and floater — that led to his injury over a year ago.
“After I did it and made the basket,” Exum said, “I looked at my coach and said, ‘That was it! That was it!'”
The move is now in his repertoire — he used it multiple times Tuesday — and doesn’t make him flinch to try.
“It’s just about trusting yourself for that first time,” he said, “and after that first time, you just keep going from there.”
Exum said he's grateful for the opportunity of being mentored by Hill, whom the Jazz traded for this offseason to get more experience and depth at point guard. During their first workout together in early September, Hill didn't hesitate to give Exum some helpful advice.
"(To) not know me at all and be able to come in and correct me, I think that's the kind of player that I need," Exum said. "From then, we've built a good relationship."
Hill said Tim Duncan did a similar thing to and for him when he was rookie in San Antonio, so he's glad to pay it forward.
"It's just how I am," Hill said.
Exum has a couple of specific things he wants to accomplish as he returns to the NBA.
"Obviously playoffs, that’s my biggest thing," Exum said. "I want to stay on the floor, that’s my biggest thing (personally). Being out for that long, you kind of get an appreciation for how much you need to be in the training room and prepare your body for each game. I think my biggest goal is making sure I stay on the court and do everything in the training room that I need to accomplish that."
Being in a position to accomplish those things is exciting for Exum. Just ask him.
EMAIL: [email protected]