The Jazz finished last season on the upswing and their young core looked ready to take a step forward. The injury Dante Exum suffered while representing Australia against Slovenia on Tuesday could derail that ascendance, at least temporarily.
While there’s no official announcement as to the severity of the damage, the fear is that Exum has suffered a tear of his ACL on his right knee. If that’s the case, he could miss all of next year, which could be a devastating blow for Utah’s playoffs chances.
Going by his individual play, Exum wasn’t all that good in his rookie season and should be easily replaceable. He started only half the games he was available for and averaged five points and two assists while shooting 35 percent from the floor. He was hesitant to assert himself, preferring instead to delegate ball handling duties and acting as a spot up shooter. That’s not what’s typically expected of top five draft picks. Then again, there’s nothing typical about Exum.
Few point guards fit his physical profile. At 6’6″ and with a long wingspan and elite quickness, he projected to be one of the few stoppers at his position. That impact on defense was obvious even in an up-and-down rookie year. When Exum was on the court the Jazz allowed just 99 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked them third in the league in defensive efficiency on a full season. As the season went on, the 20-year-old was showing signs of elite defensive potential.
While Rudy Gobert has rightfully gotten most of the credit for transforming the Jazz’s defense, having someone like Exum at the point of attack was undeniably important. Giving a dismal defender like Trey Burke the minutes Exum would have gotten is a major setback. The Michigan product just doesn’t have the size to prevent opponents from scoring on him inside or the disposition to exert as much effort on that end as he does on offense.
Playing exclusively next to at least one if not both Gobert and Derrick Favors will help, but it’s hard to see a team with Burke at point guard for 30 minutes a night lead the league in defensive rating, like the Jazz did after he was benched in favor of Exum. And while Burke does bring some shot creation to the offense that the Australian lacks at this point, he is decidedly not good enough on that end to make up for his shortcomings as a stopper. The Jazz will still be good next season but it’s much harder to see them making the playoffs now.
That would be completely fine under different circumstances. It was never a lock to begin with, since the Jazz play in the brutal West. Utah has a core that will continue to evolve and Exum is young enough to bounce back from this. On the surface there’s no need to panic about a team with as much talent as the Jazz. Yet the injury could unfortunately have a lasting impact on the franchise if it entices the front office to change paths in their rebuilding effort.
“Patience” was the key word in Utah. Instead of going for free agents or aggressively leveraging their assets for a quick upgrade via trade, the Jazz made it a priority to lock down their guys and develop the youngsters. Will that still be the case when Burke — who doesn’t seem like a long-term fit in Utah –, Bryce Cotton and Raul Neto comprise the point guard rotation? If they remain good enough to chase the eighth seed after the first two months, the temptation to make a move for a George Hill/Avery Bradley type will be huge.
If all it takes is Burke and Trevor Booker (for salary matching purposes), then that’s a smart move. If picks or young players like Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles are involved, however, general manager Dennis Lindsey could end up surrendering assets that would have been useful down the line to make a move to put the team over the top. That type of trade was unthinkable when Exum was healthy, knowing how the Jazz’s front office operates. Now that a core player could miss an entire season but the playoffs are, in theory, within the team’s grasp it wouldn’t be surprising at all.
Anything could happen, of course. Maybe Burke, Cotton and Neto do a better job than expected manning the point guard spot and the defense holds. Maybe the front office remains patient. Maybe Exum comes back strong from this and the Jazz fight for a playoff spot one year later than many anticipated. Those are a lot of maybes, however, and they represent what Exum’s knee injury means for Utah: the certainty about the direction the team was going has dissipated.
Without Exum’s potential two-way impact the Jazz no longer feel like the unstoppable force that took the league by storm on the second half of the 2014-15 season. Whether their ascendance is simply postponed for a while or stopped cold remains to be seen.