Dante Exum turned 19 during the 2014 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. He's lived in America for less than a year, and prior to this week, the vast majority of his basketball experience came against Australian high schoolers.
When you look at Exum's professional debut in that context, it's not surprising that he struggled. In 26.6 minutes per game, he averaged 7.2 points, 2.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting just 30.8 percent from the field.
But what the stats don't show is effortless athleticism, poise most teenagers are years away from and an understanding of the pick-and-roll that will make coach Quin Snyder's job much easier.
Those attributes were best displayed in the summer league finale for the Utah Jazz, the only game in which Exum started at point guard.
During the Jazz's 75-73 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Exum was just 3-of-11 from the field but finished with a game-high plus-17. Utah was clearly better with him on the floor, and Exum was better in his natural role of floor general.
Most of his struggles in Vegas came when he was slotted in as a 2, playing alongside Trey Burke. Following a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Jody Genessy of The Deseret News shared Exum's thoughts on playing off the ball:
I think I’m still comfortable at the point. I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn’t get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games.
With Coach’s system, it’s open, but there’s been so many times I’ve just gone away from the ball and let Trey take it...
Exum will either have to get used to not having the ball in his hands, or as he says, stop going away from the ball and deferring to Burke.
Despite Burke's struggles last season and during this summer league run, Snyder continues to insist on playing the two guards together.
If that's the case, Exum will have to improve off the ball. And the three biggest things he should work on between now and training camp—while he's training with Australia's national team for the FIBA World Cup—are shooting, moving without the ball and being more aggressive when he gets it.
Exum was 12-of-39 from the field and 3-of-18 from three-point range in his five summer league appearances.
Following his 3-of-11 performance against the Spurs, Genessy said: "Shooting and stamina are two major areas of emphasis the highly touted Australian will have to focus on while with his national team the rest of the summer leading up to Jazz training camp in October."
The two go hand in hand, especially in terms of long-range shooting. Exum looked worn down, and his shot suffered because of it. He wasn't getting his legs into his three-point attempts, and some were so short, they didn't even draw iron.
Effective jump shooting is largely dependent on your wrist and legs. The closer you are, the more wrist you need. The further out you are, the more legs you need. Watch Exum in a controlled shooting drill, showing the kind of lift he needs on his shots.
In Vegas, a tired Exum was flat-footed on a number of jumpers. Better conditioning will help him eliminate that fatigue.
There's more to it than just being in shape, though. Obviously, repetition is key too. The more shots Exum can get up every day, the better.
If he's playing off Burke, he needs to become a reliable catch-and-shoot option.
Moving Without the Ball
Prior to a workout with Southern Utah University, my brother, a former Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, told me, "Always be moving. Even if you're tired, just keep moving. Keep running. Coaches love that."
I must not have moved enough (or well enough), because I ended up playing for a Division III school.
Exum is obviously further ahead of where I ever was as a basketball player in most ways, but he could use that same advice from my brother.
The ability to move without the ball has taken many players from good to great. And in the cases of some, like Ray Allen or Reggie Miller, from great to legendary.
With Exum's length, speed and lateral quickness, he has the physical tools to be nearly impossible to track off the ball. When he realizes that, he'll find himself wide open a lot.
And with two teammates who averaged more than five assists last season in Burke and Gordon Hayward, he should expect to get the ball.
There were times during Utah's five games that Exum was unselfish to a fault. He showed the ability to blow by just about every individual defender he faced on the perimeter, but he often looked surprised at how open he was.
There were several plays like this one, where his initial move on the perimeter opened up a lane to the rim that he simply passed on taking.
Maybe he just needs more time to get used to playing at this level or needs to add some muscle, but when he starts attacking the rim on those opportunities, he'll either get a layup or draw a foul.
He showed he's capable of doing that. He just needs to attack consistently.
Obviously, there's a balance. Guards can definitely attack too much from the perimeter, and the threat of the pass keeps defenses off balance. But it's hard to see Exum falling prey to shooting too much after seeing how unselfish he was in Vegas.
If he can strike that balance, gain a desire to move without the ball and become a more consistent shooter, Exum could be a dynamic player off the ball.
Combine that with the point skills he already has, and Utah may have one of the best combo guards in the league on its hands.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @AndrewDBailey.
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