SALT LAKE CITY — Dante Exum was just beginning to find his groove to the season before another setback occurred at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Jan. 5.
Before halftime of the Utah Jazz’s road contest against the Detroit Pistons, Exum suffered a severe left ankle sprain and wouldn’t return for not only that game in Motown — but another two months.
During the time away, Exum would experience an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows as the 23-year-old finally fought back to return against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday after missing the past 25 games.
“I tried my best to get back in two weeks, then it was three weeks, then it was four weeks,” Exum said ahead of the Jazz-Thunder tipoff. “I was trying to get back every week to play but they just didn’t allow it and that’s just how the injury went, but we did everything to make sure I was doing it right and getting back as healthy as possible.”
Technically in his fifth season, the No. 5 pick of the 2014 draft has dealt with a plethora of injuries throughout his career — including a separated shoulder last season when he missed all but 39 games.
He also missed his sophomore season after tearing his ACL while playing for the Australian national team in the summer of 2015.
The most recent injury was tough because he didn’t expect to be out as long as he was, but the Jazz medical staff was cautious because an accompanying bone bruise was also discovered in the process. His rehabilitation process included pool work, walking, running and jumping when he could, then finally a practice rehab assignment with the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League over the weekend as part of his last stage to return.
Even as positive as he tried to remain throughout recovery, sometimes it did take its toll on him.
“I do get frustrated. I get frustrated all the time,” Exum admitted. “Just some days I come in and I’m just like beating my head against the wall, but I think that’s the natural way of things. I just want to be out there.”
Without Exum in the lineup, the Jazz went 17-8, but his teammates aren’t blind to the fact that he will be a key component as the team looks to make a strong playoff push, especially with Ricky Rubio (left hip tightness) and Raul Neto (left hamstring tightness) also out.
“He can give us a spark off the bench,” said Jazz forward Jae Crowder. “He comes in and plays with a lot of energy. Obviously he’s a good playmaker for us and he can definitely help us win games at a high level just because of what he brings to the team and his playmaking ability and his length and how he can defend. We need him right now and it’ll be a good spark for us to get him back.”6 comments on this story
The Jazz signed Exum to a three-year, $33 million extension this offseason, but he hasn’t played more than 66 games in a season since 2016-17. Ahead of the Jazz-Thunder matchup, Exum agreed “100 percent” that his best basketball is still ahead of him, despite all the recent setbacks and injuries.
“I was tapping into it a bit (before the injury),” Exum said. “I did get injured but I’m just trying to go out there every night and compete and hopefully we can get wins every night and that’s the main thing, and as a point guard make everyone around me better. That’s all I can do.
“For me, that starts on the defensive end,” he continued. “I want to be that defensive anchor and hopefully we can be that team that nobody wants to play again.”