This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey warned everybody before the season started.
The integration of Dante Exum back into the team was going to take time, with the young point guard coming off missing a season to an ACL injury. Patience would be a key, Lindsey said back in September. Exum's improvement was going to be incremental. It wasn't going to happen all at once.
Problem is, the gallery fans and in some cases the news media demands instant gratification. So when Exum predictably had his struggles early on, they were magnified. Especially as a former top five NBA Draft pick. The reality? Exum is still just 21 years-old and fighting for playing time on what has become a veteran-laden team. Combine that with physically getting back to 100 percent, and growing pains were inevitable.
"A lot of what I've had to get through has been mental," Exum said during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. "I had to realize that I need to fight for my spot in the rotation. Every game, I've tried to figure out how to be a presence, and how to help the team when I do play. It's been hard, but I've started to adjust."
When the All-Star break ends and the Jazz get back to work Friday when they open a three-game road trip against Bucks in Milwaukee, Exum's career is once again on the rise. Gone is the teenager that was just happy to be playing in the NBA. He's been replaced by a young adult who has grasped his role. He knows that he has to fight for everything he gets on this team.
And make no midstake, Exum is battling. His minutes and production have spiked in the last 10 games; he has averaged almost eight points per game in February.
Part of Exum's newfound opportunity is tied to Rodney Hood's injury, which has downsized Jazz coach Quin Snyder's rotation. But earlier in the season, Exum struggled even when given the opportunity. That hasn't been the case in the last few weeks.
"For Dante to be doing what he is after what he's been through, I'm proud of him," Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said. "He's becoming a lot more aggressive and he's attacking the basket. He seems like he can get into the paint whenever he wants. His decision making is going to be the next step for him, making the right reads and kicking out to other people. But he can get into the paint whenever he wants."
With time, Exum is becoming more aware of his strengths. He's figuring out how to blow by his defender with consistency. He's trusting his surgically repaired knee more as the season progresses. In last week's win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Exum provided glimpse of what he's capable of.
Driving the lane, he encountered Blazers big man Noah Vonleh at the rim. Only instead of going around the big man for a lay-up, Exum kept elevating and dunked over Vonleh. It was the most definitive play of Exum's short career, and one that ESPN played over and over on SportsCenter that night.
"I kind of knew once I beat my man and got into the lane that I was going to take it strong," Exum said. "I'm starting to know what to expect a little more. It's always hard coming back from injury. The biggest thing is to keep trying to get those minutes and keep building."
Exum is still not out of the woods in terms of playing time. Hood, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned, will likely return from injury Friday night. The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and there is the chance that the Jazz could look different when the clock expires at 1 p.m. Mountain Time.
But the important thing is Exum is showing steady, incremental improvement. He's in a better place mentally than he was two months ago, and the Jazz continue to see him as a significant future piece.
"It's been a process and I know that," Exum said. "I know that I have to stay patient and I have to make sure that I continue to stay ready."
Dante Exum update
• Exum scored 11 points and handed out four assists this weekend at the NBA's Rising Stars Challenge
• Exum has averaged 7.6 points in the eight games leading to the All-Star break. He's shot 52.9 percent from the field in that span
• In the last seven games, Exum has averaged 16.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds per-36 minutes
Jazz at Bucks
Friday, 6 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports