SALT LAKE CITY — The topic of Dante Exum’s improved play came up during Donovan Mitchell’s postgame interview on Saturday night, and the second-year guard didn’t hesitate to use one word he thought made all the difference.
“Confidence,” Mitchell said.
Before the Jazz’s leading scorer could elaborate, an eavesdropping Exum good-naturedly interrupted in the interview.
“Yeah,” Exum said. “That’s right.”
It was a humorous exchange, but it was also an example of what Mitchell was describing. Exum, now in his fifth year in the NBA, seems to be oozing with confidence of late whether on the court or humorously in the locker room with cameras and recorders rolling.
Exum has shown that confidence in spades recently with his play, including during the Jazz’s 129-97 blowout win over the Knicks. Mitchell, never one to lack confidence, humorously gave Exum an on-air shower by dumping a cup of water on his backcourt mate’s head while he was being interviewed live by sideline reporter Kristen Kenney.
Exum deserved the extra attention after notching the first double-double of his career with 13 points and 13 assists. He got the start Saturday because Ricky Rubio was sidelined with injuries.
“It’s not just on the offensive end,” Mitchell continued after Exum’s Joe Ingles-like commentary. “He’s playing great defense, doing what he can to make it tough on his defender and then going ahead and running the show. That’s not an easy job.”
Exum has made it look easier in the past week or so, having scored 20 versus Philly, going for 15 in the Christmas win over the Blazers and dishing out eight assists in the big victory at Portland a week and a half ago.
Exum has used his size and speed — Mitchell believes he’s even quicker than before the shoulder injury that kept him out most of last season — to give the Jazz more backcourt depth. These are the types of performances Utah envisioned him having on a consistent basis when re-signing him last offseason.
“The last few games I think has been the best stretch of his career from what I’ve seen,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “He is a very good passer and tonight it was great. He really gave us a spark we needed during the game.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder credited the play of Exum and Mitchell for helping set Gobert up for his monster first half against New York. The Stifle Tower had 24 of his 25 points and 13 of his 16 rebounds in the first two quarters.
Meanwhile, Exum dished out a dozen assists before halftime, including a lob pass that Gobert caught and dunked to set the tone just 12 seconds after the Jazz won the opening tipoff.
“That is one thing that we have been trying to improve, just getting that connection,” Exum said. “I told Rudy, ‘Roll and then run and then go up with two hands and just dunk it.’ I threw it as high as I could and I knew he could get it.”
Snyder loves seeing his point guard try to get others involved in the offense.
“I told him not to try to assert himself offensively,” Snyder said of the advice he’s given his 6-foot-6 playmaker multiple times of late. “If his offense comes, that’s great, but his playmaking tonight was really good. … He was rewarded tonight from the work he’s been doing.”
Exum agrees that things are clicking for him more now than ever before during an NBA career that’s been injury-filled and somewhat underwhelming so far.
“I am playing comfortable,” Exum said. “That is the main thing with me, just trusting my teammates that they are going to make shots, and that is what they did tonight.”
When he decides to be the aggressor, Exum knows he can use his length to his advantage. He’s trying to become better at pushing through contact and finishing. It’s something he works on daily.
“I think he’s played really well the last couple of weeks. He’s had a new level of aggression. He’s finished around the basket. He’s making good reads. He’s just played really well,” Jazz guard Kyle Korver said.2 comments on this story
Exum’s newest teammate believes the Aussie has an elite ability to drive. Korver is impressed with that combination of length, athleticism and skill.
“He has an ability to get to the rim like very few guys I’ve ever been around,” the 37-year-old NBA veteran said. “He’s a lot more athletic than I realized he was, and he’s just been playing at a really high level.”
If he'd been within earshot, Exum might've humorously added "Yeah, that's right" to that complimentary observation, too.