The Year of the "X"
Dante Exum’s new role as a “player” will liberate him to do what he does best and improve key parts of his game.
Year 6 for the “X” unfortunately begins similar to seasons past: in recovery.
But just as in years past, the hope for Dante Exum is nearly at peak level. Dante has bulked up in summer and worked on his shooting form and balance. The Jazz see unique things for Exum this year.
During this season’s media day, Dennis Lindsey remarked that they are taking a conservative approach with Dante and that they’ve put him down as a “player” this season.
Not just a PG, not just a wing, not just a backup; a “player”.
On the surface, this appears odd and frustrating not to have a defined role.
Through another perspective, this may be the shift Dante needs to make the leap to a positive contributor and important piece to this season’s puzzle.
Dante’s ability to adjust to this new role will help him and the team find early success. The adjustment to a fluid role and position will be helped by improving his shooting strategy, focusing on non-scoring impact, and developing his off-ball defense.
Improved Shooting Strategy
Exum can turn his sixth year into a success by having confidence in shooting the right shots.
Glancing at the percentages only, Dante’s perimeter shooting has gotten worse since his rookie year. His best 3P% came in 2014-15 when he hit 31.4%. Last year he hit just 29%.
More concerning yet are his 3PArates: 0.635 as a rookie, 0.257 as a 5th year veteran. By shooting a worse percentage and taken fewer overall, the prospects of Dante moving off-ball appear dreadful.
Upon further inspection, however, Dante has actually improved in several areas:
Last season Dante only took open or wide-open threes
Last season 92% of his 3’s were catch and shoot (88% as a rookie)
Last season 55% of his 3’s came from the corner (only 40% as a rookie)
These adjustments, though seemingly insignificant, can have a great impact on one’s 3P%. Should Dante keep this trend going this season, he may be able to creep back over the 30% mark from 3.
When on the floor this season, the ball will work around to him for an open shot and he has to have confidence that it is the best shot he’ll get.
Furthermore, Dante has increased his rate of getting to the rim by nearly triple (15% of his shots were at the rim as a rookie, 49% as a 5th year player). Unfortunately, his conversion at the rim was one of the worst of his career at 53.8%.
Dante should have the spacing to continue to get to the rim this year. If he can revert back to his career average and push over the 60% at the rim (like he did last year), he could be an offensive asset on the floor.
Exum’s ability on offense, however limited, can still be valuable with correct shot distribution and confidence that they are the
best shots for him.
Focus on Non-scoring Impact
By virtue of the Utah Jazz’s strategy to overhaul their offense (particularly their shooting), several complementary skills are needed from Dante to help him see consistent time on the floor.
Dante has always had good per minute and per possession assist numbers. These could see a dip as he transitions to the role of a “player” and spending time on the wings.
Dante can still add value in the passing game, however, on drives and in transition.
When playing off ball, Dante will be fed possessions through the system in which he’ll already have an advantage. Attacking closeouts, cutting against overshifting defenses, etc., will allow Dante to score in a better situation or build on the advantage with his passing.
These opportunities will provide Dante with assist numbers in far less complicated and dangerous situations, also likely reducing his TOV%.
In addition, transition is a big opportunity for Dante to score and pass his way to a positive impact.
Dante’s physical tools (6’6”, 190 lbs), elite quickness, and ball-handling ability make for great potential in the open court.
The results on the court haven’t been great so far. Last year he ranked in the 19%tile in transition, down from the 48%tile the previous year.
The Jazz rarely operated in transition and had only two players with more than 100 possessions and where better than average. Pretty bleak.
This year could be entirely different. Dante Exum could be sharing the floor with Bogdanovic (261 poss, 83%tile), Green (140 poss, 80%tile), or Conley (164 poss, 53%tile).
Dante can improve his efficiency in transition, no doubt. But an underrated part of his contribution in this area will be those receiving his passes on the fast break are more equipped to score.
Develop Off-ball Defense
The most important thing Dante can do to help this Jazz team is his defense.
When healthy, confident, and engaged, Dante has locked down one of the greatest offensive players in league history in James Harden. His upside in this area is tremendous.
“Defensive Blend” is a metric we’ve used at Jabber Jazz to blend 5 advanced metrics over the past 3 years to evaluate defensive performance. Dante ranks in the 50%tile.
The temptation is to judge him as overrated but further inspection yields some interesting results.
In on-ball defense or defending the shot (using FiveThirtyEight’s DRAYMOND metric), Dante ranks in the 96%tile. Off-ball defense (using a combination of stats from ESPN, The BBall Index, etc.) ranks him in the 39%tile.
Dante’s strength is one-on-one, squaring up with the offensive player so he can use his length. His weakness on defense is playing
in a support role. If Dante can improve his skills and contribution in this area, the sky's the limit.
A big part of this support defense is defensive rebounding.
If Dante is going to move off-ball and operate as a wing, he has to improve on his career 8.3% DREB%.
Some have likened his role change to the way Trevor Ariza played in his early career. A key aspect of Ariza’s game was a 14.3% DREB% through his first four seasons.
By virtue of playing four-out ball (four perimeter players + one traditional big), the Jazz will be lacking somewhat in the defensive rebounding department. Players on the wing, like Dante, will be crucial to our defense remaining a force in the league.
Dante Exum has all the tools of a positive contributor.
The Jazz selecting him at 5th in the 2014 draft was absolutely the correct move at the time. Though he’ll never be a star in this league or amount to the expectations we had for him on draft night, he’s got the potential to help this team in a big way.
Dante will have his best season yet by taking good shots, and trusting in the strategy and in himself to make them. He has to provide value when not scoring and he can do that by passing in transition and out of advantages. He can close the defensive gap between the team of last season and this year by rebounding and improving his off-ball defense.
While most fans were disappointed in the bleak news from media day suggesting Dante wouldn’t be ready by opening night, we should be encouraged that the Jazz are committed to Exum remaining healthy throughout the year.
Should the basic stat line stay the same for Dante, do not fear. The most important results will likely be seen in his on/off the
court impact numbers.
At the end of the day, the most important thing we need from Exum is the “X-Factor”.