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Rookie wall? Dante Exum doing all he can to fight through fatigue

SALT LAKE CITY — Dante Exum has already played more games with the Utah Jazz than he ever did in any previous season of basketball while growing up in Australia.

And keep in mind, the NBA season hasn’t even hit the halfway mark yet.

“I’m way past that right now,” Exum said.

The most Exum had played before in a basketball year was in the 25-30 range, he said. Considering he’s about to play in his 40th NBA game — plus eight preseason contests — the 19-year-old admitted it has been a big adjustment.

It’s also been mentally and physically exhausting at times.

Only 42 more to go this season.

Like his coach, Exum doesn’t necessarily buy into the concept of the rookie wall that often gets talked about during the middle to latter parts of a player’s first NBA season.

“Playing all these games, everyone’s going to run into a time where they’re fatigued,” Exum said. “I’m just handling it the way I can handle it best, and that’s trying to get sleep and a lot of (healthy) food. Everyone is going to go through fatigue and so-called walls, so I wouldn’t just say it’s a rookie thing.”

Perhaps midseason exhaustion could explain a dip in Exum’s performance the past four games when he’s only scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting in a combined 70 minutes.

And that was coming right after Exum had set and matched his career-high of 13 points in two of three games.

Exum, the fifth pick of the 2014 draft, said he’s noticed that he has little lapses when he’s not quite ready on possessions or out of position. That becomes even more evident in film sessions when he can see himself on the screen with coaches going over his every move.

He admitted the mental game of the NBA has been more taxing in ways than the physical toll.

“I’d have to say it’s more mentally fatiguing. You’ve got to be focused 100 percent of the time,” said Exum, who’s averaging almost 19 minutes a game as Trey Burke’s point guard backup.

“We’re playing Steph Curry (after a) long road trip with three good teams. Just the fatigue of having to deal with the scouting reports, going from team to team. It’s an adjustment.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder believes the rookie wall is a mythical concept that can take a life of its own if players aren’t careful.

“The more guys accept that it’s real, it can be self-fulfilling,” Snyder said. “I think guys get tired. There’s a second-year wall. Injuries sometimes can make you tired. There’s a lot of things that can go into it.”

Snyder has a solution, too.

Fight through it.

“If it’s there, let’s say we hit it last game and now we can start improving from it and figure out how to deal with it,” he said.

Snyder does acknowledge that both physical and mental fatigue are real and related. He’s quite cognizant of players’ minutes and factors that into his decision to give his teams days off, like they had Wednesday after Tuesday’s 116-105 loss to the Warriors.

“I know it’s going to happen. I know I’m going to get tired,” Exum said. “All the coaches know it too. It's just a matter of doing the right things so I don’t quote-unquote hit that wall.”

Exum credited the team chefs who prepare healthy options for the players before and after practices, shootarounds and games. That helps, the teenager said, because his mom isn’t always around to cook for him.

He’s even tried to cut out junk food, including his favorite snack: Doritos chips.

“It’s just about finding good food options,” Exum said.

Snyder doesn’t believe Exum’s recent struggles are from the rookie wall or fatigue.

“I think he’s got to keep challenging himself to play with intensity, to play every moment,” Snyder said. “He’s just got to keep working. Everybody’s fatigued.”

Fighting through tough times when you’re drained is a way to build character and learn valuable lessons.

“If you hit the wall, you get up, you go around it,” Snyder said. “He can’t hit the wall. He’s got to keep playing. We need him and he needs to keep playing. That will help him get better.”

Snyder smiled when asked if he’s hit a rookie coach wall.

“As long as I don’t have to move again next summer, I’ll be all right,” said the coach, who’s moved from Austin to Philadelphia to Russia, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Utah in the past five offseasons. “I move every summer, so that’s my fatigue — when June rolls around (and) I see the moving van coming.”

Snyder has a three-year contract with the Jazz, so he’ll have a summer break this year. He called that “a good thing.”