This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Dante Exum is working and waiting for his return, understanding now more than ever how important that return is.
One of the scarce graces of a serious knee injury at the age of 20, of having patience forcefully wedged into his basketball experience, is that the downtime has given Exum a chance to ease the whole thing back, to watch and learn, to soak in his surroundings and to set his place in them.
And that, along with healing, is exactly what the point guard has done.
His mind, essentially, has caught up with his body, with where the hint and promise of his physical attributes have carried him.
"It's given me an opportunity to kind of work on everything that I need to work on, and step back from the game and be able to learn," he said. "Being away from playing, and seeing the team, you get to kind of realize how we can get better."
How he can get better.
How everything can get better.
It's been 241 days since the anterior cruciate ligament in Exum's left knee blew while he was playing for Australia against the Slovenian national team. The sickening pop in the joint sounded on that occasion a little like the pronunciation of the town where it happened: Ljubljana.
Since that time, Exum has undergone surgery, staring down fear and frustration in the aftermath, carefully following a regimented rehab that now has him moving and shooting on the court, everything short of absorbing contact.
He knows he will not play this season, his efforts aimed at a fresh competitive start in 2016-17, which no longer seems all that far off. And while Exum called his experience since the injury "a long path," regenerating strength in both his knee and brain, he said that journey has been anything but lost time. It set him back and now is bouncing him forward.
"There are a lot of mental aspects that you have to overcome," he said. "Obviously, not playing is the biggest one. Still trying to be part of the team in any way you can," is another. And a third: "Trying not to play in fear of an injury again."
Conquering demons like that last one is huge, especially for a young athlete like Exum, who, just like so many physical phenoms before him, previously saw himself as darn-near immortal. Now, he knows he must be vigilant in adhering to those demands of rehabilitation, to get back to where he once was, and of regular maintenance and patient practice, to move forward to places yet unseen.
Over the past month, Exum has started moving hard and cutting on the court, coming off screens, finding spots on the floor to shoot.
Over the next month, he will be cleared to do what he called "unpredicted movement," which includes going against a defender. The next step, at some still-undetermined time, he'll be allowed to absorb contact, which is to say, he'll be able to play freely.
In the meantime, he's changed his shot.
"The biggest thing was making sure I didn't have two hands on the ball as I'm releasing," he said. "That was a big issue with my shot last year. The shot's been straighter, for the most part."
Exum has hated having to watch his teammates fight their battles without him. But he repeatedly conceded not just that the view from the bench has been enlightening, but that he can help:
"One of the biggest things is controlling the tempo. When you're off the court, when the opposing team is going on a run, you can see how you can change the tempo, what plays you can call. I'm always sitting next to a coach. He'll always give me tips, 'Hey, we can run this now, we can run that.'
"You're thinking like a coach, in a way. When you're a point guard out on the court, you need to be able to do things on the fly. If Gordon can hit a jumper going right, what play do you run to get him that when he's on fire? You saw Rodney hit all those threes, so, on the fly, you have to be able to call those plays.
"I simulate in my mind what I would do, how I would react, if [an opponent] is playing well, what I would do to stop him. That's how my mind works. It's been hard for me this year. We've had a few injuries. We had Rudy out, Faves out, Alec getting hurt. I just can't wait until we're all healthy."
Quin Snyder seconded that.
"We saw Dante in the summer league really starting to understand that he could get where he wanted to go on the floor," he said. "It was almost as though he was discovering himself. He was getting more and more comfortable dictating what he wanted to do. I saw a big jump. He knows that's out there for him. Over time, he'll get all that back. That's a big thing for our team."
It's bigger than big. It's a necessity.
"That's why I'm working every day," Exum said. "… I want to come back and be better than ever."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.