Can Jazz Find Minutes For Dante Exum?
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – On Friday night, the Utah Jazz announced that Dante Exum was available against the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s the first time Exum had been available this season, and the first time since March 14 Exum was available to get rotation minutes for coach Quin Snyder — he didn’t play.
Exum stayed on the bench in a 107-106 loss to the Grizzlies.
The Jazz were beaten in large part by the excellent play of rookie Ja Morant, a 6’3” lanky guard who repeatedly beat Jazz guards off the dribble, and scored in the paint. Morant finished the game with a team high 25 points on 9-22 shooting, but made just three shots outside of the restricted area all game long.
In other words, he lived in the paint.
If Exum has displayed one consistent skill as an NBA player, it’s elite speed at his height, 6’5”, and an ability to stay in front of bigger point guards. During game two of the 2018 Western Conference Semifinals, Exum famously held superstar guard James Harden to 0-7 shooting and just two points in 22 possessions.
It’s a skillset the Jazz could have used Friday night. Instead they suffered just their fourth loss of the season while Exum rode the bench.
Though Exum has has found his way back to health, that doesn’t mean he’s earned a spot in the Jazz rotation.
So far this season, Snyder has stuck to a nine-man rotation. The traditional starting five, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert, supported by one bench guard (Emmanuel Mudiay), two wings (Joe Ingles and Jeff Green), and a true center replacement (Ed Davis or Tony Bradley).
“Dante makes out team better. Roles change throughout the course of the year,” Snyder said, “Some of them are impacted by things you can control, and some of them aren’t.”
Snyder has traditionally favored a nine-man rotation since he’s been in Utah.
Before the season, it was expected Exum would battle for backup guard minutes with Mudiay, with the winner being a part of a three guard rotation with Conley and Mitchell. Exum’s injury prevented him from competing with those minutes, and Mudiay assumed the role.
The problem for Exum, Mudiay has been a better than expected bench option for the Jazz.
Though Mudiay is averaging a career worst 26% from the three point line, his effective field goal percentage is at a career high, largely due to his increased shooting percentage at the rim and at the free-throw line. That’s made Mudiay the Jazz most efficient scorer in the guard rotation and has provided the bench with a valuable scoring punch.
Through nine games, the Jazz have outscored opponents by 44 points in the 156 minutes Mudiay has played. That could make it difficult for the Jazz to supplant Mudiay’s 17 nightly minutes with Exum as he works his way back into the rotation.
The next place the Jazz could look to find minutes for Exum is by shaving down the minutes of O’Neale who has found himself in a full-time starting role for the first time in his career, averaging 28.5 minutes per game.
Like Exum, O’Neale has carved out a niche in the NBA as a defensive stopper, and has proved an invaluable defensive wing presence to the Jazz this season.
O’Neale’s 28.5 minutes are an eight minute increase over last season, and could be lowered to get Exum on the floor. However, so far this season, O’Neale has been the Jazz most accurate three point shooter.
The Jazz this season are averaging just 29.4 three point attempts per game, the fifth worst mark in the NBA. O’Neale, knocking down 48% of his 2.3 attempts per game is a much needed addition to a roster that has struggled to find enough three point looks.
It’s been particularly important with Ingles slow shooting start to the season. The formerly knock down shooter is made just 28% of his attempts this year, down from 39% last season.
“I think he can bring a lot,” Ingles said of Exum, “His length defensively, offensively being able to attack the rim and create for others.”
For his career, Exum is just a 30% three point shooter, which would be the third worst mark on the Jazz this season, ahead of only Ingles and Mudiay, both of whom have high career averages than Exum. It’s safe to assume that over the length of the season, with averages regressing to the mean, Exum would be the Jazz worst three point shooter.
That makes trimming O’Neale’s minutes to support Exum a difficult sell.
This leaves the Jazz with two realistic options to find minutes for Exum, in place of either Conley, or Mitchell.
Mitchell is averaging a career high 34.8 minutes, one minute more than last season. He’s also averaging career highs in points, rebounds, steals, free-throw percentage, field goal percentage, three point percentage, effective field goal percentage, and a career low in turnovers.
Basically, he’s been fabulous.
The Jazz are 75 points better through 12 games on the floor than their opponent — leaving it nearly impossible to lower Mitchell’s minutes.
Like Mitchell, the Jazz have been better this season with Conley on the floor. Despite seeing a dip in his stats across the board, the Jazz are 28 points better than their opponents this season with Conley on the floor, despite playing just 30.4 minutes per game, the fewest since his rookie season. There’s simply might not be enough space floor time between Conley and Mitchell to find minutes for Exum.
So what role can Exum fill?
For now, it may be simply as additional depth incase of an injury or foul trouble for the Jazz. The team sent rookie Nigel Williams-Goss to the G-League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars, who to this point in the season, had stayed with the Jazz main roster in case of emergency. Williams-Goss has played just eight minutes in four appearances this season.
With the depth in front of him, the Jazz are in no rush to bring Exum along quickly, and certainly not at the detriment of the current roster. However, just because there may not be minutes for Exum in the current rotation, doesn’t mean that wouldn’t change with inevitable injuries, planned rest, or diminished play from those in front of him.
Perhaps the Jazz best option is to bring Exum back slowly throughout the rest of the season, understanding he has one additional year left on his contract. O’Neale is having a breakout NBA season, and is in the final year of his ultra-team friend $1.6 million contract. Should O’Neale continue his hot shooting and high level defense, it’s fair to assume he’ll attract a large financial offer in a depleted free-agent market this summer, and may find an offer too large for the Jazz to match.
If that is the case, Exum could assume a larger role in O’Neale absence, and once again prove his value in the Jazz rotation.