SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after his rookie season ended in April, Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum returned to Australia for the first time since his NBA career began.
He returned to the U.S. with a noticeable souvenir — about 10 pounds of extra weight.
“I was thinking it was all of my mum’s cooking,” he joked.
Exum said he’s kept on that 10 pounds for the past two months, but fortunately for the soon-to-be-20-year-old and his employer, it’s a good 10 pounds.
“I’m feeling good, fit,” he said, adding, “and it’s not fat.”
If only we were all so lucky.
Jazz officials have enthusiastically talked about the physical gains of their No. 5 pick from a year ago. Word has also spread that Exum is growing taller along with filling out.
“We’ll go with that,” he said, smiling.
Truth be known, Exum doesn’t believe he’s any bigger than his 6-foot-6 listing.
Size aside, there have been other positive changes to Exum, and particularly his basketball game, which last season included a mixture of occasional flashes of brilliance, surprisingly good defense and offensive apprehension.
“To his credit, he’s worked hard this summer. He spent a lot of time here (at the practice facility),” said Jazz assistant Alex Jensen, who’s tasked with the role of head coach of the summer league for the first week.
“The things that he’s been doing in his individual workouts, it’s kind of always exciting to see it happen when you start playing so you can see that progress. He’s gotten better.”
On the first day of the Jazz’s summer league mini-camp, Utah coach Quin Snyder listed Exum’s pick-and-roll performance as one of the things that “jumped out” from the first session.
“In a good way,” Snyder added.
The Jazz coach liked how Exum attacked in a series of pick-and-rolls. That led to him scoring once, making a good pass another time and turning it over. Snyder said it was a different type of turnover than the careless and rushed kind Exum had a tendency of making as a rookie (and even said it was more shooting guard Rodney Hood’s fault).
“He’s been working,” Snyder said. “Our guys have been working. They’ve been in the gym. They’ve been committed and I think it’s good for Dante, Rodney, these guys to come out and finally play some five on five.”
As the roster is currently constructed, point guard looks to be the Jazz’s weakest position this upcoming season. Sure, there is potential between Exum and backup Trey Burke, but both had their fair share of struggles in the difficult playmaker position.
Utah management has enough faith in Exum and Burke, though, that it has decided to let them develop, even take some more lumps, instead of seeking help from a more established and consistent veteran point guard this offseason.
Snyder has even nixed a few possible trade options for Exum, telling Jazz general manager, “I believe in him. I believe in his makeup.”
The Jazz also believe Exum will shoot better than he did in his first NBA experience, when he only hit 34.9 percent of his overall shots and 31.4 percent from 3-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4 assists to 1.4 turnovers) is another thing that needs to vastly improve.
Snyder is confident that in time — and with patience and a heck of a lot more work — the improvement can happen.
“Dante, to me, he’s going to keep getting better. It’s not going to be an exponential jump where all of a sudden he comes back and he’s the most improved player of the year.”
Snyder quickly added that it’s possible Exum could earn that award, but he’s counting on steady improvement instead of a seemingly overnight success story (a la Rudy Gobert).
As a former point guard at a high level, the Duke alumnus recognizes how difficult it can be to learn all of the nuances of the basketball quarterback spot.
“It’s not a position that you walk into and all of a sudden you figure it out,” Snyder said. “It takes time, and over time you get better at it. That, to me, is how his development will look offensively. We saw it some last year. I think it will just continue to improve, (and we’ll) be patient with him.”
Snyder is encouraged by the work that Exum has put in to ensure that his body didn’t expand the wrong way because of mum’s cooking.
Physically, Exum has been working on his hips and building core strength. Basketball-wise, he continues to spend time honing his jump shot and becoming more comfortable being aggressive.
While the Jazz are assembled for two weeks, Exum has also committed to working on being a more open leader along with Hood.
“We’re going to live with growing pains with our whole team. Sometimes that’s a challenge,” Snyder said. “But when you see guys spending enough time and being committed and working, as a coach you believe in them and you’re able to not tolerate but accept some of those pains that come with growing.”
Exum believes he has plenty more growth on the area that’s currently considered his strength: defense. His extra size along with his natural quickness and height will help him be more physical while guarding opponents.
“My defense, even though I got a lot of compliments about it, it can get better. It’s about keeping that up for 82 games,” Exum said. “For the summer league, (I will) try to stay on it for the whole (40) minutes. Other than that, I’m going to focus on offense as well. It’s just the all-around game.”