SALT LAKE CITY — Thabo Sefolosha started hanging around the Utah Jazz practice facility about a month before training camp.
While several of his teammates also returned to stand out in OTAs and various training sessions, one person in particular has Sefolosha enthusiastic to see how everything translates into the season: Dante Exum.
“I’m excited for Dante after some of the injuries and things like that,” Sefolosha said. “I think he had a great summer, and it shows with the speed and athleticism, he got that right back, so I’m excited about that.”
“The Ex-Man” is healthy entering this season after playing just 14 games last year.
His career-high 8.1 points per game and 3.1 assists won’t jump off the page for most, but considering the circumstances of what he had to overcome to hit the court makes it more remarkable.
“I feel just as good as I did last summer, even better,” Exum said.
Exum separated his left shoulder during the preseason, which required surgery, before returning to the lineup in March as the Jazz were in the midst of a strong postseason push. His versatility was on display in the playoffs, where he even found defensive success against Houston Rockets MVP James Harden during the Western Conference Semifinals, which ultimately earned him a three-year, $33 million extension this summer.
“What he did was exceedingly difficult. He joined a very high functioning playoff team as a 22-year-old and played very well,” said Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. “We actually went through that exercise with the coaches when we were looking at alternatives, and I think in retrospect when the coaches got to see him play those minutes that they were surprised at how many games in those last 14 games that he played well and allowed us to increase the margin from the bench.
“Look, he’s 6-6 and he’s smart and he’s committed and he’s much more experienced, and I expect good things from him going forward, and that’s why we paid him the way we did.”
Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey described Dante Exum’s return to the lineup last year from injury as exceedingly difficult. “I expect good things going from him going forward, that’s why we paid him the way we did,” he said of Exum’s 3-year, $33 million extension. pic.twitter.com/YyPHRD0HJQ— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) September 24, 2018
Exum’s on-court abilities have never been a concern within the Jazz organization; it’s been his health. Since being selected fifth overall in the 2014 NBA draft, Exum has played less and less since his rookie campaign where he suited up for all 82 games. He missed his sophomore season after tearing his ACL while playing for his Australian national team in the summer of 2015, then underwent shoulder surgery last October to stabilize his AC joint, which nearly kept him out for another full season.
This summer, Exum went into the mindset of being able to lead at different aspects of the game. He participated in competitive Rico Hines UCLA Runs, alongside teammate Rudy Gobert, where he competed against NBA peers to improve at transition pushes, pull-up treys and pick and roll reads versus different styles of play.
“Those runs are good, really good,” Exum said. “It gives me an opportunity to play with different players, different play styles, but I think it gives me an opportunity to every day go in and say ‘OK, today I’m going to work on pull-ups and the next day it’s going to be transition pushes or pick and rolls, so every day I had to focus, and it was just something I was trying to accomplish when I went into every run.”
With all that he’s had to overcome, most people forget that Exum just turned 23 years old on July 13. As a 6-foot-6 point guard, Exum will have to compete for minutes with teammates Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto and even rookie guard Grayson Allen to some extent. His versatility may help him earn the playing time, but Exum doesn’t see it as a problem with how deep this year’s roster is.
“Obviously, my preference is to play point guard,” Exum said. “That’s what I’ve done, that’s what I’ve been and it’s what got me here, but I’m a bigger guard and I can guard 1 through 3 and hopefully can play 1 through 3 and hopefully get an opportunity sometime this season early on where we can play me, Ricky and Donovan together and see how that combo goes.
“With that team and what we have, we can do a lot of combinations like that and experiment, and I think it’s going to be really good.”
Lindsey feels it’s unfair to label Exum as the team’s X-factor just yet until he can see him in action, but Jazz coach Quin Snyder will be the one forced to divvy up those minutes. With strong guard play possessing different styles, Snyder feels that having Exum back at full strength is a good problem to have.
“I know how excited he is going into this year, I know I’m excited about having him back and having him healthy,” Snyder said. “That’s the biggest thing. Dante will keep getting better, and that’s one of the things we really like about him similar to a lot of guys on our team, but I think Dante being able to play consistently and be healthy, that’s the experience you need to improve, and you saw that at the end of last year."