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It wasn't the actual pain that scared Dante Exum.
When Exum executed a jump-stop in the lane on Aug. 4, 2015, and collapsed to the floor, he knew. Despite his Australian teammate Nathan Jawai yelling at him to get up and telling him nothing was wrong, Exum knew the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee was torn.
The injury ended his second NBA season before it could even start.
To be sure, Exum felt the physical pain. A torn ligament makes escaping pain impossible. But the mental anguish, for him, was the worst. The wondering, the fear, the regret, the questions that made the physical pain almost an afterthought.
The question he feared the most: Would he ever be the same player again?
"There were plenty of times where I wondered, why me?" Exum told The Tribune. "I wondered if I would be the guy I was before the injury. I was supposed to go home to Australia the next day, and I hadn't been home in a year. I wondered, what's going to happen with the Jazz? That was the pain I was going through."
The Jazz open preseason play a week from Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers. The mention of that game brings a smile to Exum's face. After almost 14 months of rehabilitation, much of it shrouded in secrecy, Exum says his knee feels better and stronger than before the injury. He says his explosion off the dribble, his blinding speed, his jumping ability are back.
The rehab was painful and tedious. The Jazz organization slowed him throughout the rehabilitation process significantly in some instances. Exum was cleared for basketball activities on May 25, but the Jazz did not allow him to play in summer league or for Australia at Rio in the Summer Olympic Games. The Jazz wanted him to stay in Utah at the Zions Bank practice facility, where the organization could keep a close eye on his progress.
"We could've pushed the envelope and tried to have him ready by March, or somewhere in that time frame," Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey told The Tribune. "We had to tell him 'no rush.' Clearly the goal was to try to get him back. But what we wanted to do was honor the next 12 years over the next 12 months. That's what we tried to communicate to Dante."
Exum admits frustration at times during the road back. There were plenty of days when he wanted to do more, but couldn't. He instead resigned himself to the daily grind of controlling what he could and getting better in little pieces, not big chunks.
He and Jazz assistant Lamar Skeeter met each day for skill work. Exum worked on tightening his ballhandling, which was loose at times during his rookie season. He took up residence in the weight room to bulk up. He worked with Skeeter to refine his jumper, trying to make his release smoother. During games, Exum sat behind Utah's bench to observe. He says a year of watching games will help him mentally how to manage a game like a veteran while still being only 21 years old.
More than most young players, Exum now appreciates the sport, and has a full understanding of his athletic mortality. Exum knows the game isn't promised to him, which has instilled a fierce hunger heading into the 2016-17 season.
"It's not that I took the game for granted before," Exum said. "But now that I finally have that privilege again, I think once you sit out all 82, you just build that fire every day. I think I have a greater respect in taking care of my body and trying to be good every night."
Away from the spotlight is how Exum got back into a playing groove during the summer. He started off playing one-on-one. Then, two-on-two. Eventually, he ramped up to three-on-three. With much of the roster enjoying the offseason, the Jazz brought former local college basketball stars such as Brandon Davies, Tyler Haws and Spencer Butterfield to get Exum up to speed.
"He had a great work ethic, that's what I remember," said Davies, who starred at Provo High and BYU and now plays in the French League. "In the summer, when everyone was on vacation, Dante brought it every day. He worked hard, he worked like he had something to prove. One of the things I admire the most about him, he didn't know who I was, other than he knew I had played a little bit in the NBA. Yet he respected me. He treated me like a teammate. He made sure I felt welcome. He's a great player, but he's an even better person."
With each passing workout, Exum's knee got stronger. He remembers the workout where he realized he could cut and change direction without thinking about pain. The most important day was went Exum crossed over, went into the lane off the dribble, and came to a jump stop the same move that shredded his ACL.
Only this time, instead of crumbling to the floor, Exum exploded to the hoop. He scored. And when he turned to run back up the floor, he smiled.
"I was like, 'Man, I did it,' " Exum said. "Once I did that, I was like, 'I'm good. I'm ready to take the next step.'"
Exum returns to a different Jazz team from the one he left. He left as a starter and returns as a projected backup to veteran George Hill, acquired by Utah in late June. That doesn't mean Exum isn't important to Utah's fate this season, because he is. His 6-foot-6 frame is rare for a point guard, as well as his size and athleticism for that height.
But Hill's acquisition eases pressure on Exum, who won't be counted on to play 30 minutes per game or be counted on to run the team every minute he's on the floor.
On media day, Dante Exum will put a Jazz uniform back on again. On Tuesday, he'll take part in a formal practice again. And for him, Tuesday will feel like Christmas has come early.
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About Dante Exum
• Suffered a torn ACL on Aug. 4, 2015, playing in an international friendly for his home country, Australia.
• Exum last played for the Jazz in a July 2015 summer league game against the Boston Celtics, scoring 20 points and adding five rebounds and five assists.
• Exum was a starter in the last half of his rookie season, and projects as George Hill's backup into this season.