Certain words are cruel, particularly eight weeks before training camp. ACL and may be torn are a kick to the stomach, I don’t care who you are, what team. But when the injured party just finished his rookie year like Dante Exum and had so much to look forward to in his sophomore season, it is hands-in-the-head-almost-about-to-cry time.
In a summer exhibition game in Slovenia, Dante Exum’s knee quit on him after he was driving in the paint. The saving grace was it happened far, far away and not on ESPN so we were spared the wolves coming out and tearing the flesh of the summer national team system. The facts, or what the facts may be when the dust settles were brutal enough: likely torn ACL for the Aussie kid playing for his home country. The details won’t be confirmed until the Utah Jazz complete their official MRI exam of Exum sometime tomorrow but the depression has already swept through Salt Lake. This was the year the Jazz were supposed to crack the playoffs for the first time in four years and Exum was slotted to be a big part of their renaissance, a back up point to Trey Burke and a playmaker on the Jazz, a team that is the slowest paced team in the NBA. They needed Exum.
If Exum’s ACL is indeed torn the Jazz can become buyers in the low hanging fruit market, choosing Jordan Farmar or Nate Robinson or Luke Ridnour or some other place holder whose name is forgettable. Getting someone isn’t the issue. It’s the fact that whoever gets this lucky benefit will only be a temporary stand in for the 20 year old Exum who had an up and down rookie season but who was expected to have a solid second year.
So much is up in the air now, particularly if it is a torn ACL. Some players come back as explosive as they were before the injury, others do not. It’s a waiting game.
Dante Exum was the first guard taken in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, projecting as a future All-Star but he was only 19 years old and very unpolished. Marcus Smart, Elfrid Payton and Jordan Clarkson, all who were picked behind Exum, made the All-Rookie Team. Exum did not.
Besides being an expert finisher at the rim, Exum couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean. He shot 28% from 3-10 feet. He was worse from 10-16 feet, making 11% of his shots. He was 22% on long two’s and 31% on three point shots. But at the rim, he finished 73% of his gimme baskets. It was a hit (defense) and miss (offense) first year for the Australian whose summer job it was to improve. In the NBA you improve by playing. And playing. And playing.
The critics of national basketball were out in numbers last year when Paul George broke his leg and for obvious reasons. It was a gruesome injury that was televised and sickening. Besides the basic too bad for the Jazz sentiments, Exum’s injury talk is less buzz worthy because he is an unproven player, he plays in Utah away from the lights, he isn’t an All-Star and it wasn’t on television. The narrative of it falls somewhere between bad luck and oh no for the Jazz. It’s a five minute horror before we are on to something else, like our own national team about to congregate in Vegas.
Regardless of who is paying attention though, Exum’s injury is rotten luck because the Jazz have tried to make something out of nothing for a while now. They have never recovered from trading Deron Williams and then losing Paul Millsap. The Millsap loss hurts more than Williams. Williams game went into the toilet once he took the money. The pressure of trying to lead a franchise seemingly broke his confidence. But Millsap went the other route. He retooled his game, became an All-Star and leader of the Atlanta Hawks.
The Jazz are a good defensive team which is why the NBA pundits who get paid to talk about teams on the cusp of playoff relevancy liked them so much, giving them a puncher’s shot at the 7th or 8th seed. But the Jazz still have the problem of offense. They were the worst team in the Western Conference in points and assists.
Memphis was the only Western Conference playoff team to not average 100 points a game but they made up for it with their 21.7 assists. The only ball movement team worse than Utah was the Miami Heat.
The NBA game is a pass and cut, pass and drive, pass and dribble with multiple options league that the Jazz have not incorporated as part of their system. The loss of Exum hurts any attempt to speed up the play. Exum was averging 2.4 assists per game. Only three other Jazz players averaged more assists than Exum (Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke). Compare that to the 8th seed in the West last year, the New Orleans Pelicans. They had six players who averaged more than Exum’s assist count of 2. 4.
How the Jazz, the slowest paced team in the NBA, was going to get up to speed with this new NBA slice and dice was a continuing mystery. And that was with Exum on the floor. Now that he is gone, there’s well deserved pessimism. You need defense to get into the playoffs. But you need offense, too. In this guard driven league, you need a penetrator who can finish and find shooters on the perimeter. Rudy Gobert’s block shots will only take you so far. The Jazz needed Dante Exum; Dante Exum needed the Jazz. Both may be out of luck for 2015-16.
photo via llananba