I think the Jazz want me back, so hopefully it all works out. My agent’s going to take care of that and I think for me as a player, I just need to control what I can control. —Dante Exum
SALT LAKE CITY — Dante Exum and Raul Neto have a lot in common.
Both are foreign-born point guards who play for the Utah Jazz. Both were thrust into starting roles as rookies ahead of a more experienced point guard in consecutive seasons. Both have battled injuries and both missed significant portions of the 2017-18 season. Both are free agents this summer.
But neither is expected to be taking over starting point guard duties anytime soon as long as Ricky Rubio is with the team and playing as well as he did in the latter half of this past season. So that leaves their status with the Jazz in question heading into the summer.
The 6-foot-6 Exum, the No. 5 overall draft choice in 2014 as an 18-year-old from Australia, is expected to be back with the Jazz. The team has indicated that and Exum has expressed a desire to be back, but it’s not a done deal, depending on how much money Exum expects and how much the Jazz are willing to pay him.
Neto, who was acquired in a draft-day deal in 2013 and has played with the Jazz for three seasons after first joining the franchise in 2015, is less likely to return. The Jazz like Neto and he has enjoyed his time in Utah, but he may not be willing to come back as the No. 3 point guard for another season.
Exum said he’s excited to go into free agency for the first time but is going about his business as usual.
“Nothing changes for me going into the summer,” Exum said. “I’m still going to have the same mindset trying to get better, that’s the biggest thing. I think the Jazz want me back, so hopefully it all works out. My agent’s going to take care of that and I think for me as a player, I just need to control what I can control.”
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said the Jazz don’t want to let Exum go and believe he has a bright future, despite his missing one season and parts of two others with injuries.
“We hope to retain him,” said Lindsey. “Obviously there’s a lot of conversations and in a free agent market, it’s hard to predict. Dante’s done his job, he’s had some unfortunate things happen. We don’t think he’s injury prone — things happen to young players. He’s the right guy, he’s got the right level of talent. You don’t get the same package of speed and size. It’s our job to develop him but we’ll see what happens.”
Exum acknowledges it was difficult for him to miss more than five months of the season, after suffering a shoulder injury in a preseason game against Phoenix. He finally returned to the team in mid-March and played in 14 regular-season games, averaging 8.1 points and 3.1 assists per game and played in all 11 playoff games and he did a solid job guarding James Harden in the Western Conference semifinals.
“Obviously it was hard going down like I did,” Exum said of his early-season injury. “I can’t sit here and be like the injuries held me back. I was able to come back for it this season and I was truly excited to be part of this team and what we were able to accomplish.”
Neto turned professional at age 16 and didn’t join the Jazz right away after being acquired in 2013. He has played just 81 games the past two seasons, the same number as he did in his rookie season when he took over starting point guard duties from Trey Burke when Exum was sitting out the year with a knee injury.
He missed half of Utah’s games this season, mostly because of an assortment of injuries. But when he was healthy he played well, averaging 4.5 points on 40.4 percent 3-point shooting
“It was a tough season for me — a lot of injuries, a lot of ups and downs,” said Neto. “Every time I was going out there and playing good, something happened to my body. It was my chest, my ankle, my hamstring—- a lot of injuries but I think it was good talking about what we’ve achieved and how I finished the season. After all the up and downs during the season, it was good.”
Neto will turn 26 later this week, which is about the average age in the NBA and more than three years older than Exum, who turns 23 this summer. The Jazz may look for a younger player to be the third point guard if Neto is looking for a larger playing role.
“It’s always a time you’ve got to think, you got to look at all your offers and opportunities you have and try to pick the best one,” Neto said. “Right now, there’s nothing else I can do. Just keep working and waiting and make the decision I have to make. Sometimes it’s not only the player’s decision, there’s the Utah Jazz, so basically it’s in their hands. We’ll see.”
Exum said he’s mostly going to be working out in Los Angeles this summer (“Australia is too far away and it’s cold,” he said), trying to improve his game.
“For me the biggest thing is the pull-up (jumper),” he said. “I’ve got the ability to get to the basket and guys are going to start to play on that a bit more. If I maybe shoot the mid-range pull-up and obviously the 3-pointer, it adds a different aspect to my game that guys are going to have to defend and open up my driving lanes a bit more.”
Neto says he would like to be back in Utah, but knows it may not happen.
“I think I deserved it, there’s nothing else I can do,” he said. “I did the whole three years giving everything I have on the court and practice every day. I think everybody sees that. The only thing I can do now is to relax, enjoy my family, enjoy some time back in Brazil.”