How Dante Exum Can Bounce Back from Rough Rookie Season

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2015

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 5: Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on April 5, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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By plenty of conventional standards, the Utah Jazz's Dante Exum had a rough rookie season. Actually, that's putting it nicely. By those standards, it was historically bad.

Among the 295 rookies who played in the three-point era (starting in 1979-80) and logged at least as many minutes as Exum's 1,817, he was dead last in player efficiency rating. And he didn't fare much better in a number of other metrics.

Exum Among Rookies Who Played as Many Minutes
Rank (Out of 295)
Player Efficiency Rating5.7295th
True Shooting Percentage.457284th
Win Shares-0.1282nd
Assist Percentage16.6%97th
Free Throw Attempts32295th
Points Per Game4.8293rd

For anyone who was high on Exum before the Jazz used a No. 5 pick on him, those numbers should be a little jarring.

But in the age of information, when analytics pervade NBA coverage, things aren't always what they appear. Exum has a great foundation with real building blocks in place.

Learning how to better utilize his strengths and working on his weaknesses (which were arguably born of an unprecedented path to the NBA) will give Exum the opportunity to rebound from a challenging first campaign.

No other teenage rookie has come from overseas without any professional basketball experience. Simply put, Exum took an unprecedented leap in competition level when he went from Australian high school basketball to the NBA.

Exum's Path

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PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 20: Dante Exum #7 talks with Andrew Wiggins #8 of the World Select Team talks against the USA Junior Select Team during the game on April 20, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
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According to Basketball-Reference.com's Player Season Finder, 92 NBA rookies were 19 or younger on February 1 of their respective first years.

Narrowing it down even further, only 16 entered the league without playing for an American high school or college. Exum was the only member of that group without prior professional experience.

The leap to the game's highest level was vast. That Exum was ever able to look like he belonged was a testament to the physical tools that prompted the Jazz to draft him fifth overall.

When he was measured at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine as an 18-year-old, Exum was 6'6" in shoes and had a 6'9 ½" wingspan, according to DraftExpress. Even in today's positionally ambiguous NBA, that's excellent size for a point guard.

In addition to those dimensions, his athleticism earned very high praise from former NBA player and fellow Aussie Randy Livingston, per Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling:

He's sort of a cross between John Wall, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. He has Westbrook and Rose's athleticism, but he's bigger than them. He has John Wall's long arms. Now, will he be as good as Derrick Rose? That's up to him. I think he has the desire like Westbrook, although Westbrook has that fire, he has that killer instinct all the time. So I think that if [Exum] can tweak that and turn that on a lot more consistently, he'll be good. It's in him, so I think it's just a matter of time.

Turning it on was an understandable problem for Exum. Against older, stronger, more experienced and more skilled players, he was generally content to sit back and allow Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke and other perimeter players to dictate the game.

That self-awareness was largely responsible for the absence of production. But it also helped Exum finish the season with a net rating of plus-3.3.

Strengths on Which Exum Can Lean

PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 3:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz on February 3, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
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Because Exum didn't try to do too much on offense, his baseline numbers weren't terribly effectual. On the season, his offensive rating of 102.3 was barely below the team's rating of 102.5.

Being a net neutral on that end allowed Utah's coaching staff to start Exum on the basis of his immense defensive potential, something that earned him a fictitious Defensive Rookie of the Year from yours truly back in March.

With his length and athleticism, Exum possesses the ability to stay in front of the league's quickest point guards. And the difference in having that in place showed in Utah's defensive numbers.

Utah's Defense With Exum Starting
Before January 22NBA RankAfter JanuaryNBA Rank
Points Allowed99.114th90.61st
FG% Allowed46.4%26th42.6%1st
3P% Allowed37.3%26th34.9%14th
Defensive Rating106.827th97.11st

That alone makes Exum a viable option for a potential playoff team at the 1. Patrick Beverley of the Houston Rockets, the West's No. 2 seed, started on the basis of his defense. And his offensive numbers weren't significantly better than Exum's.

Even if he only improves marginally (a reasonable expectation for such a young player), Exum could carry a similar role for the Jazz in 2015-16. You could even argue he already has.

The combination of the young Aussie's impact on defense and awareness on offense made him the season's most impactful rookie by at least one metric.

Developed by Bleacher Report's analytics guru, Adam Fromal, Factor Adjusted Team Similarities (FATS) can measure an individual player's impact on basketball's four factors: shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws.

Based on this model, Utah played at a 50-win pace when Exum was on the floor and a 34-win pace when he was off. It also estimated that Utah won at least seven more games just by having him on the team.

He was tops in "FATS Wins Added" for the Jazz:

Adam Fromal @fromal09

FATS differential/wins added for Jazz this season. Alternate title: I love Elijah Millsap. http://t.co/EMtaMfczLs

And for the entire 2014 rookie class:

Adam Fromal @fromal09

Per FATS, 10 biggest season-long impacts from rookies. Andrew Wiggins? Not going to be found here. http://t.co/XewPoyypAd

None of this suggests that we ignore what Exum was bad at, just that his outlook isn't as dire as the picture painted by more conventional numbers.

His shortcomings—shooting, ball-handling, strength and confidence—can improve. And with the right coaching from coach Quin Snyder and his staff, they should.

Fixing Exum's Weaknesses

Tony Jones @Tjonessltrib

Exum: I know I have a lot of improving to do. The good news is I know where I need to improve

Exum's general struggle with confidence and aggression can be linked, in part, to the size and speed of his peers. Natural selection may be helping him with that problem.

According to local media reports, Exum recently returned to Utah—after spending some time at home in Australia—looking bigger.

Andy Larsen @andyblarsen

I don't know if it's just not having seen him in a while or what, but Dante Exum looks bigger. Maybe even taller. Greenwood said it too.

Tony Jones @Tjonessltrib

@bwfanzzz Yes. Looks like he's added at least 10 pounds

A little growth spurt after a rookie season in the NBA isn't unprecedented. It's happened to someone as recently as Giannis Antetokounmpo. When he was drafted in 2013, the Greek Freak was 6'9". He's now listed on NBA.com at 6'11".

For Exum to go from 6'6" to 6'7" or 6'8" would amplify his physical advantages on defense and could give him a bit more confidence in trying to finish around the rim.

That's one of a few things Exum will work on this offseason, according to Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune:

The summer is laid out for Exum. He'll spend time in a Santa Barbara, Calif., gym for strength and conditioning work. He'll be at the Jazz practice facility, working on his shot and his body. He'll play in both of this year's summer leagues — the Rocky Mountain Revue and one in Las Vegas. After that, he'll play for the Australian national team in Olympic qualifying.

Exum's goal is simple. He wants to improve mentally and physically. He wants to improve his jumper. He wants to get better and more proficient at scoring in the lane and close to the rim. Even at his young age, he desires to be more of a floor general.

All of the above will help Exum progress generally, but there are a few specific skills he could work on to accelerate the process.

In March, I listed three skills attached to specific players whom Exum could look to emulate: Shaun Livingston's post-ups, Russell Westbrook's pick-and-rolls and Richard Hamilton's off-ball movement.

As Exum continues to grow, he'll routinely be matched up against players who are four or five inches shorter than himself. Adding as little as one post move and a counter could be enough to take advantage of that.

Livingston regularly hits his turnaround jumper over smaller defenders in the post. He also has the vision and willingness to find an open teammate if he can't get his shot off.

Surround an Exum mid- to low-post catch with Hayward, Rodney Hood and one other shooter (Frank Kaminsky, anyone?), and you may suddenly have possessions that bear a slight resemblance to when Livingston shares the floor with either Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson in Golden State.

It's not something that Utah would have to go to regularly, or even often. But any wrinkle you can add to an offense makes that offense less predictable.

A more commonly used skill for a point guard is the ability to operate an effective pick-and-roll, which is why Exum should spend some time watching film on Westbrook.

When he comes off the high screen set by his big man, Westbrook is thinking attack, attack, attack—and then attack some more.

Like his fellow Aussie Randy Livingston said, Exum has similar burst athletically. Flashes of it were on display last season. He just needs to find the mindset to put it to use consistently, which is easier said than done.

A vote of confidence from Utah's coaching staff should help:

Tony Jones @Tjonessltrib

Exum said coaches talked to him and told him not to be afraid to make mistakes

Being able to attack the rim without a fear of reprisal will help not only Exum, but his teammates, as well. That speed and quickness can put a lot of pressure on an opposing defense, causing it to collapse around the paint. That of course leaves more room around the three-point line for the likes of Hayward and Hood.

And when Exum doesn't have the ball, he needs to do a much better job of moving around the floor. If you tuned into any Jazz game last season, you were likely to see long stretches of Exum just standing in the corner.

That's evidenced by the heat map from NBA Savant that Rob Mahoney shared in a piece for Sports Illustrated.

Whether the standing around was Exum's own doing or something the coaches wanted from him is unclear. But Utah needs ball and player movement from all five guys to achieve the kind of Spurs-ian offense it wants.

Exum has the quickness to beat off-ball defenders with curls, back-cuts and slips the way Hamilton did for the Detroit Pistons during his prime. To have him languishing in a corner is such a waste.

Adding skills like these, improving his shot and working on his body would obviously help Exum have a more productive sophomore campaign. But above all else, he just needs to keep learning by experience.

The massive leap is behind him. Now he needs to take confidence in the footing he found as a defender and team player and start taking steps forward.

Each part of the summer plan—the workouts, summer league games and international competition—will give him nuggets of experience. Returning to regular-season action will give him gobs of it.

The brightest side of all? There's nowhere to go but up.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and salary figures are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of June 7, 2015.   

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


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