Jazz Nation was devastated last week when news broke that sophomore guard Dante Exum had torn his ACL in international competition on this rather innocuous looking play. The injury is, without question, a major setback in Exum’s development, and one he can scant afford given the limited elite level basketball he’s played to this point in his life.
The injury also won’t do much to help the Jazz’s prospects in 2015-2016 – a year in which some were predicting big things from Utah. In fact, prior to the injury, so many people were picking the Jazz as a playoff dark horse that Zack Lowe declared on his podcast that they no longer qualified as a sleeper. While Exum’s numbers last season were fairly pedestrian, by the end of the year he had moved into the starting lineup, and the Jazz were certainly hoping for a bigger contribution in the coming year. While the prospects of the Jazz beating out two of the Thunder, Mavericks and Pelicans for the eight seed may have been overblown, there’s no question they would be better off with Exum than without.
Obviously, the Jazz are not building for the upcoming NBA campaign. Their sights are set 5-10 years into the future, when Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are distant memories and Chris Paul and Marc Gasol are shells of their former selves. The real question for the Jazz then, is what this injury means for their hopes of beating out Wiggins and Co for the Western Conference crown in 2021.
As difficult as it may be for the Jazz faithful to swallow right now, it may well be that the loss of Exum for this season makes them better when they are realistically hope to be in a position to contend for an NBA title.
First of all, it’s important to put into perspective what an ACL tear means in today’s NBA. Medicine has progressed mightily since this same injury put Bernard King’s career in jeopardy in 1985. In the medical realities of that day, we would have been justified in fearing for Exum’s career at this stage. Today, however, Exum is more than likely to be the latest addition to the list of professional athletes that come back from an ACL tear looking like it never happened. We saw Adrian Peterson do it in 2012, and more recently in hoops, we’ve seen Derrick Rose and Lou Williams return to form following the same injury. Particularly given that Exum only turned 20 in July, it seems much more likely than not that he will bounce back without losing a step.
If Exum ultimately suffers no meaningful loss of athleticism and remains the giant, throbbing ball of talent he is, the injury could actually work to Utah’s advantage in a couple of ways. First of all, it might give Exum an opportunity to sort out his shot. Dante shot 34.9% from the field and 31.4% from deep last season. While many rookies shoot poorly, these numbers need to get better if he’s going to turn into the elite level guard the Jazz drafted him to be. Exum’s workouts will be limited as he recovers, but one thing he will be able to do is shoot, shoot and shoot some more. Admittedly, neither Derrick Rose, nor Sweet Lou showed any meaningful improvement in their shooting percentage following injury, but it’s worthwhile to note that the time off may give Exum a chance to work on something that genuinely needs work.
More importantly, freed of the need to find Exum minutes, the Jazz will have a chance to sort out the rest of their lineup – by which I mean, figure out once and for all if Trey Burke (of the non-vitation to the Team USA minicamp) is any good. Burke, a heavily decorated collegian and highly-touted draft pick in 2013 has been disappointing in his first two years in the league. Soon, the Jazz are going to need to decide whether to pay the man, or cut bait and move forward without him. With Exum out, Burke will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself and, hopefully, how far he’s come in three years in the NBA.
Finally, the biggest benefit the Jazz may get out of Exum injury is not having to pay Exum when his own rookie contract expires. While the injury is unlikely to have a lasting effect on Exum’s athletic ability, it will certainly slow his development. Based on his rookie season, Exum is not a max-deal type of player, but he certainly has max-deal type talent. Coming back from injury in 2016-2017, Exum is likely to struggle because he’s been out of basketball for a year and because he’s just not that good yet. This may mean that, when it comes time to negotiate his second contract, Exum may not have the body of work that would justify a max deal, potentially allowing the Jazz to lock him up at a discount, much the same way as Steph Curry’s glass ankles allowed the Warriors to sign the reigning MVP up at a substantial discount in 2012. Curry presently makes $11 million a season, dramatically less than his draft classmates Blake Griffin, James Harden. This discount on Curry gave the Warriors the flexibility to give a big deal to Klay Thompson, bring in a key free agent like Andre Iguodala, and keep Draymond Green in the fold following this year’s title. A discount on Exum in a couple years’ time could have similar benefits for the Jazz.
While this may all seem like small consolation for disappointed Jazz fans looking forward to a playoff run in 2015-2016, the future in Utah remains bright and only time will tell if it is in any way affected by the injury to Dante Exum.