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After much anticipation, it appears Dante Exum, the 2013 fifth overall pick from Australia, is set to finally return to the Utah Jazz this week.
Once considered a top prospect in the basketball world, the 22-year-old has faced a bevvy of unfortunate injuries – tearing his ACL in 2015 (causing a year-long absence in 2015-2016), and damaging his left shoulder this preseason. Despite these blows, Exum now will finally have his chance to crack the rotation again and join his teammates.
The catch for Exum, however, is the success his team has attained this season without him. Utah are currently riding a six-game winning streak, are sitting at 37-30, and the rotation of two-way players like Ricky Rubio, fellow Aussie Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and the recently-acquired Jae Crowder has done wonders for coach Quinn Snyder.
The process will not be easy though – just as returning from injury was. Expectations for the once-thought-of potential star have dwindled significantly, but Exum is certainly skilled enough to cut into the minutes of Rubio at point guard.
With current backup point guard Raul Neto dealing with a fractured left wrist, the Jazz now need Exum to come through in a big way. It is hard to say how Exum will play after suffering such nasty injuries, but his natural athleticism and 6’6″ stature work beautifully in the Jazz’s hard-nosed system.
Despite being ranked in 25th in the league for points per game, Utah are third in points allowed per game. Clearly, the focus for the Jazz is defence and length (see defensive anchor Rudy Gobert’s 7’1″ height, 7’7″ wingspan) and Exum certainly provides that.
Offence has never been the point guard’s forte and following his rookie season and devastating injury, his offensive skillset and lateral quickness seemed to diminish. But remember, Exum is young, an incredible athlete and possesses an advanced defensive mind.
Early scouting reports of the Australian raved about his ability to stay in front of his man and work within a defensive system, and if the Jazz can figure out a way to get him back to his old ways, the chances of Utah making the playoffs – which are currently far greater than what was hoped for heading into the season – will increase.
Sitting in a three-way tie for eighth place and just a game-and-a-half back from fourth place in an insanely crowded west, Exum appears primed to make an impact that the Jazz now need.
While it may be against the best interest of Exum’s shoulder, look for Snyder and his staff to throw him back into the fire and take over Neto’s role of 12 minutes per game.
While Rubio has performed at a high level recently, his season-long numbers have left something to be desired. Exum provides height and length Rubio does not, and given the trust the Jazz have placed in the 22-year-old since he was drafted, he will finally get a chance to show his worth once again, albeit in a much smaller role than once expected.
It remains to be seen what kind of player Exum will be after his injuries, but given the style of play and fluidity of Jazz right now, things might finally turn out well for the Australian.