It's Time for the Utah Jazz to Prioritize Dante Exum over Trey Burke

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2014

USA Today

To say Trey Burke's in a sophomore slump would almost be an insult to the phrase.

His numbers have tragically bottomed out through roughly one-fifth of the season, and he's been thoroughly outplayed by backup Dante Exum, who's already proven he deserves the bulk of the minutes at the point.

It's been tough to watch Burke this season, and not just from the standpoint of a writer or fan. He's gone from savior to scapegoat for this franchise in just over a year.

This was the general sentiment when he was drafted in the summer of 2013.

This is now.

And the change didn't come without reason. Through just over one season's worth of games, he's barely looked like an NBA player. The eye test says he's too small and not athletic enough.

Friday night, the Golden State Warriors trounced the Jazz 101-88. In a 13-point loss, Burke was a team-worst minus-28. Exum was plus-15.

Golden State did what almost every other opponent has: Put Burke on an island—in the post, on the perimeter, whatever—and go to work.

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And that's just on defense. The numbers tell the story on the other end, where he's rarely able to create an even decent look for himself.

In his first season, the numbers were rough (as you just saw), but there were at least flashes of solid IQ and playmaking ability. Maybe he could one day morph into a pass-first 1 like Andre Miller or Kendall Marshall.

But in year 2, Burke is still trying to be a scoring guard. And the picture gets even uglier when compared to what Exum's doing.

Dante Exum vs. Trey Burke
ExumBurke
MIN18.931.8
PTS5.59.8
REB1.72.3
AST2.85.6
TOV1.12.0
TS%53.340.4
AST/TO2.642.81
AST%23.727.3
NetRtgPlus-2.2Minus-5.8
NBA.com

In all honesty, this is what should be happening. Exum is clearly the higher-upside asset. It's unquestionable. Tune into any Jazz game and you'll see it for yourself. He is taller, longer and more athletic. Plus, his vision and IQ are way ahead of schedule.

Obviously, there are still things to work out with Exum. His catch-and-shoot game has been better than expected, but his dribble pull-up is a mess. He's yet to make a single shot off the dribble outside of 10 feet.

He gets out of position at times defensively, but he has the length and quickness to recover. Just imagine what he can do once he irons out those fundamentals.

He can also tighten up his handle a bit, even though he's figured out that keeping things simple generally helps him stay out of trouble.

Thing is, the learning process could be accelerated by giving Exum more minutes with the first unit. There's a theory in basketball that's akin to exposure therapy. Just like you can help people with a fear of heights by taking them to the Empire State Building, a basketball player can adapt in difficult circumstances.

The skyscraper is a controlled environment. There are security guards and really tall fences. You're not going to fall off. While playing with the starters, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors can be Exum's safety net as he truly adapts to the speed of the NBA.

The move is starting to come up among experts all over the NBA, but it's a delicate process. Basketball Insiders' Nate Duncan is worried what it would do to Burke.

ESPN's Chad Ford has been asked about the debate as well. Twice, actually. In his weekly Q&A with SportsNation, Ford was asked, "When does Quin Snyder move Trey Burke to the bench in favor of Exum?"

He responded:

Great question. Exum, who was supposed to be the rawest of the lottery guys, has really outplayed him all year. In fact, Exum ranks second among all rookies in PER right now. And he's going to get better. A lot better. It's hard to watch that team with an objective eye and think Trey Burke is even in the same league as Exum as far as elite potential goes. Now, the Jazz may want to keep bringing him along slowly. There's less pressure coming off the bench. But long-term? He's going to be the Jazz's starting PG. Combine him with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, both of who have been excellent this year and the Jazz have a scary core for the future.

The next week, he went into the specifics on why Utah is hesitant to make the move:

I mentioned this last week and feel even stronger about it this week after talking to sources close to the Jazz. They know Exum is going to be amazing and quite possibly their franchise player. He's not ready yet. He has to get stronger to handle all the contact he gets. But he's got the tools, has the basketball IQ, has the work ethic to be GREAT. And his jump shot is dramatically improving. Fast forward two years and he's likely Utah's No. 1 option. But it's early and I think they are erring on the side of patience right now. He doesn't need to be, nor is he ready to be THE guy right now. I think Burke might start the whole season. But by next year, or the year after, this will be Exum's team to run.

The question here isn't whether Exum's ready to be the guy this season. That's still Hayward, and to a lesser extent, Favors.

This is about who's the better option to help the 2014-15 Utah Jazz win games. The numbers say it's Exum. And he fits logistically.

He's pass-first all the way, almost to a fault. That makes more sense with Hayward, Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, all of whom can score. With a second unit devoid of scorers, Exum's unselfishness can contribute to a stagnant attack.

Now, think about what the move does for Burke. Yes, there's the fear that it negatively impacts his psyche, like Duncan pointed out, but it could also go the other way.

It could be difficult for him to accept at first. But after adapting, Burke could settle into the opportunity to be aggressive in a lineup that actually needs him to be, and against other players without top-tier physical tools.

All that said there's still no indication from within the organization that a lineup change is coming. So the most we can ask for now is more minutes, including some with the starters.

Exum is clearly the point guard of the future, and he's earned more time to develop cohesion with the other core members of the team.

And if it means rewriting the next few months of Burke's career from a tragedy to some kind of buddy-cop flick with his up-and-coming backup, even better.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and salary figures are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, and are current as of Nov. 22, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.