SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, with Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey deciding to keep his team together.
The Jazz were rumored to be involved in a few trade discussions, the most exciting deal being linked with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies had put point guard Mike Conley on the market and the Jazz were one of the finalists to land the near All-Star guard. Utah's final offer for Conley was Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, a first-round pick and a second-round pick, according to Tony Jones of The Athletic. The Grizzlies asked for Dante Exum and were reportedly told no.
The Jazz wanted Conley but felt that adding Exum to the deal was too much. The first reason is that Conley is 31 years old (usually around the age when point guards’ play begins to slip). Secondly, he’s suffered season-ending injures two out of the past four seasons. If Conley was to miss more time as a member of the Jazz, they would needed a reliable backup. They needed to keep Exum.
The other reason is the Jazz believe in Exum and have the most real estate on "Exum Island." One of the main reasons is his work ethic. Exum's father, Cecil Exum, played college basketball with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, and the younger Exum grew up hearing stories about Jordan's work ethic.
"He was always the first one in the gym, last one out, that type of stuff," Exum recalled. "He was someone who developed throughout college and he was determined. That sticks in my head.”
This has continued to help Exum to this day.
Exum is a gym rat but the Jazz also believe in him because he is super talented. He was drafted fifth overall in the 2014 draft for a reason. His ability to move his feet laterally is one of his greatest strengths. This skill is helping him develop into an elite defender. Last season’s playoff series against Houston gave the Jazz a glimpse of what they hope to see for years to come.
His ability to move his feet also helps him contribute on the offensive end. Exum has one of the quickest first steps in the league and has long strides. The combination of these two things makes defending him difficult. His vision is solid and continues improving the more comfortable he gets with running the offense. He is the best lob passer on the Jazz, which is important to have when the best rim roller (Rudy Gobert) in the game resides on his team.
Exum’s main struggles are his lack of shooting and staying healthy. After playing every game his rookie season, he missed the entire next year with an ACL tear. Over next 2 1/2 seasons, Exum has missed 102 of the last 221 games.
When he has played, teams aren’t scared to let Exum shoot, usually giving him the “Ben Simmons treatment” (not guarding him around the 3-point line). This helps defenders in two ways: it makes staying in front of Exum easier and it allows defenders to crowd the paint, making life difficult for his teammates. For his career, Exum shoots 30.6 percent from 3-point land (the league average is 35.4 percent) and has an effective field-goal percentage of 47 percent (the league average is 52.3 percent).
Part of the problem has been the injuries. Half of Exum’s offseasons have been spent rehabbing and not working on his game. This past offseason was his healthiest yet and the numbers are beginning to show it. During the beginning of the season Exum continued to struggle with his shot and confidence. His shooting numbers weren’t much better than his career averages.
Exum’s improvement began after Coach Quin Snyder took Exum out of the rotation at the end of November through the beginning of December. KSL.com’s Ryan Miller wrote, that during this time, "Jazz assistant coach Jeff Watkinson sat down with Exum and explained two things: The first was what Exum could do; the second was what he was going to work on. Simple, right? But that talk helped Exum turn his season around."
When Exum was added back into the rotation he, as Snyder put it, “established himself.” He began just playing basketball and not overthinking it. Exum is going into games with more confidence in his abilities, his shot being one of those things. When asked about Exum’s recent play, Favors said, “He looks comfortable out there. It looks like the game’s kinda slowed down for him. He’s making the correct read now without really forcing anything. … He doesn’t look timid — he looks like he’s having fun and not worrying about playing time and things like that.”
From Dec. 10 to Jan. 7 when Exum was again sidelined with a left ankle sprain, his effective field-goal percentage skyrocketed up to 52.7 and is shooting 38 percent from 3. He did this while averaging 7.7 points, 5 assists and 2.7 rebounds a game in just 16 minutes. Looking at his per 36-minute numbers, 16.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6 assists a game, shows how impactful he was.
His shooting numbers from all over the court improved. During this hot streak, Exum averaged 53.5 percent from the corner 3. The Jazz offense generates the most corner 3s of almost any team in the league; having players who can knock these down is essential to making the offense flow. If Exum can continue to shoot at a high level from 3, teams will have to start respecting him, which will open up driving lanes for him and his teammates.15 comments on this story
Exum also has been better at finishing at the rim, an area he has struggled with. For this season, he is averaging 54.7 percent but during the past month he was up to 64 percent. Conley, the player the Jazz wouldn’t give up Exum for, is averaging 53.6 in the restricted area for the season, one of the lowest of his career.
Putting these numbers up for a month is very encouraging, but we’ve seen flashes before. After the best month of his career, it’s time for these flashes to become a reality. If he can continue to improve and build off of this stretch, the Jazz might already have the answer to one of their biggest needs, a secondary scorer to Donovan Mitchell.