SALT LAKE CITY — I am not a terribly patient person. I execute a coasting start at stoplights, just so I can nose ahead. In a bank line, I’m on my way to the teller window before anyone says, “Next!”
Still, I plan to exercise a fair amount of patience regarding Dante Exum. Maybe I’ll eventually start wondering whether the Jazz made a poor choice with the fifth pick of the 2014 draft, if he doesn’t get going sometime next year. But after seeing him miss 166 of his first 314 games, thanks to injuries, and seeing how the Jazz have built a nice team with patience, I’m currently as laid back as a minstrel.
Call me Mr. Greensleeves.
Thursday as the Jazz crushed the woebegone Phoenix Suns, Exum made his return. It was his first official appearance since logging 31 minutes in the team’s final playoff game last year, when he collected 15 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal. That multi-stat box score is why the Jazz valued him in the first place. He can play multiple positions, has a 7-foot arm span, keen anticipation and likes to defend. If he can learn to shoot from the perimeter, he’ll be a genuine dilemma for opponents.
I know. If. That has become Exum’s first name.
Exum was a star in the summer league, averaging 20 points, four rebounds and six assists through three games. Later came the preseason shoulder injury that kept him out all this year. He has basically missed two entire seasons, the first in 2015-16 when he tore his ACL. He has played 149 games in four seasons — less than half what he might have. In chronological age, he’s 22, but in experience he’s 19. He didn’t play in college, so there has been little time to grow into his potential.
Meanwhile, he’s from Australia, where good basketball competition is scarce.
In an era of instant information, waiting until things play out hasn’t been easy for either Exum or Jazz fans. But it remains the wisest plan. Don’t expect him to lead the Jazz through the playoffs.
John Stockton didn’t become the team’s full-time starter until his fourth year, at age 24. Gordon Hayward wasn’t an established starter until his fourth year, either, when he was 23. He didn’t become a high-level player until age 26.
Exum had 41 starts as a rookie, 26 last year. Everyone has seen flashes, but nothing consistent. Still, the Jazz are optimistic.
Thursday it was lights, camera, action.
He finished 3 of 7 from the field, with three rebounds and two assists. More important, he looked in shape. But he also looked mature — not too anxious, but not uncertain. In the second half, he had three artful spins to the rim that rolled off. But one ended up in a pair of made free throws. Another bucket was waved off on a charge.
Two layups in the final two minutes upped his numbers.
At one point he crashed to the floor but hustled back into the flow.
“No need to worry,” he said. “It’s a calculated fall.”
Asked before the game whether there would be minutes restrictions on Exum, Quin Snyder said, “Good question.”
A pregnant pause ensued.
Then he said the only restriction would be Exum’s conditioning. The backup guard played 14½ minutes on Thursday, which was predictable. Not only was he gradually working his way back, but starting point guard Ricky Rubio is playing his best basketball.
This will likely be Exum’s role the remainder of this year, as an “energy reserve.”
After the game, Exum came sweating to his locker after working out on the exercise bike.
“I’m not tired from the game,” he laughed.
Stockton played 8,085 minutes in his first four seasons in the NBA, Hayward 8,137. Exum has played 3,059. That’s fewer miles than a certified pre-owned Larry H. Miller Lexus. Regardless, I’m going to watch with interest, but without judgment, until he’s driven around the block a few times. No reason to jump the gun. No reason at all to hurry up and wait.