The Utah Jazz have been one of the NBA’s hottest teams for the past two months, winning 19 of their last 21 games — with their only losses coming to the similarly rampaging Portland Trail Blazers and the league-leading Houston Rockets — to go from dead in the water to the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Jazz enters Thursday’s home game against the dismal Phoenix Suns at 38-30, good for a tiebreaker-decided edge over the reeling SanAntonio Spurs for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot … and while the Spurs continue to wait for reinforcements, the Jazz are about to get theirs, in the form of an exciting former lottery pick.
Dante Exum, the Australian guard whose combination of size, length and tantalizing athleticism sent him rocketing up draft boards in the run-up to the 2014 draft before the Jazz nabbed him with the No. 5 overall selection, has yet to play during the 2017-18 season after undergoing surgery to repair a separated left shoulder during a preseason game 10 days before opening night. At the time, it seemed like the injury could knock the 22-year-old out for the entire year, just like the left ACL tear that Exum sustained during national team duty, and that sidelined him for the full 2015-16 campaign. And yet, Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that months of grueling rehab had Exum targeted for a return to the court “before the end of the month.”
Well … [checks calendar] … Thursday’s before the end of the month. How would a return against the Suns grab you?
After a couple of quick practice assignments with the G-League-affiliate Salt Lake City Stars, the Jazz recalled Exum on Wednesday and announced that he’d be available for Thursday’s game against Phoenix — the team, as luck would have it, against whom he sustained his shoulder injury in the preseason.
Exum’s return comes at an opportune time for the Jazz, who just lost reserve point guard Raul Neto to a fractured left wrist that should keep him sidelined for a couple of weeks. All of a sudden, Utah’s got a dozen or so backcourt minutes per game clear to give Exum a chance to work the rust off, get his conditioning up, and hopefully showcase the two-way talents that had many excited for the prospect of him getting a larger role in Utah’s rotation following the losses of Gordon Hayward and George Hill this summer.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder was careful to pump the brakes on expectations for a player who hasn’t seen live NBA game action in 10 months, according to Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News:
“I would caution us not to all of a sudden with Dante coming back to expect too much from a guy that hasn’t had a chance to play in a while,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I would dissuade us from thinking he’s going to do what Raul did, they’re two different players.
“Dante has been a guard for us, he’s played the point, he’s played on the wing, he’s got size and we just want to see Dante get more and more healthy and more and more confident and see where it goes,” he added.
It’s tough to find a silver lining in an injury that forces a young player to the sideline for five months. One positive aspect of Exum’s absence, though, is that the Jazz have found a viable starting backcourt without him, thanks to the steady playmaking and improving shooting of point guard Ricky Rubio and the emergence of Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell.
Their presence ensures that Exum won’t be relied upon to make a major immediate impact as a playmaker. Instead, he’ll be able to reacclimate himself to the NBA more slowly, providing short max-effort spurts that’ll allow him to get used to checking opposing scorers and reading the floor against the speed of NBA defenses. If Exum can even begin to get up to speed in the final four weeks of the season, he could provide a significant boost to a Jazz team with its sights firmly set on a somewhat surprising return to the postseason.
Utah’s defense has been excellent since the middle of December, the league’s best since Rudy Gobert re-entered the lineup on Jan. 19, and downright suffocating during the 21-game run that’s completely changed their season. They’ve allowed a microscopic 95.1 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 24, a full 6.6 points-per-100 better than the next-best team in that span (the East-leading Toronto Raptors). Over the course of the full season, that’s equivalent to the gap between the NBA’s most-efficient defense (the Boston Celtics) and its 10th-worst (the New York Knicks). Add in a 6-foot-6, 205-pound guard with a 7-foot wingspan who’s already displayed a bona fide ability to harass opposing guards, mirror ball-handlers, negotiate screens and generally wreak havoc on scorers at multiple positions, and an already scary Jazz defense might get even more terrifying.
Plus, as electric as Mitchell has been and as valuable as Rubio’s presence remains for a Jazz team that still needs help generating good looks in Snyder’s flowing motion system — even during this 19-2 binge, Utah has ranked 16th out of 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, with its offensive efficiency plunging when Rubio takes a seat — they can use more dudes capable of beating a defender off the dribble or attacking a closeout, penetrating to the paint and collapsing a defense to create something good.
Exum hasn’t yet consistently shown on the NBA level that he can be a top-flight facilitator, but as Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune notes, Jazz brass entered the season excited about his chances of making a leap in that department following a summer spent refining his handle with former All-Star Baron Davis, a standout performance at Summer League and a strong start to the preseason before his injury:
His shot was smoother, cleaner coming out of his hands and falling through the net more efficiently.
Most important, his confidence was significant. He looked like he knew he belonged. […]
His first step always has been fast and explosive, and his defense at all the perimeter spots always has been very good.
So even if Exum isn’t ready to run Utah’s offense, Snyder has the option of playing him with Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles and having one of those two be the primary ball-handler.
Even if the shooting woes that have hampered Exum during his time on the court — just 38.6 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from the 3-point arc in 155 career regular- and postseason games — continue in his comeback, Exum has a chance to be a weapon as a secondary ball-handler, a complementary attacker and playmaker, and a chaos agent tasked with disrupting opposing scorers for 10 to 15 minutes a night. At a time of year when many teams are either playing out the string or hoping to just stay upright and in one piece ahead of the final push to the postseason, Utah will get to unwrap a new toy and begin to play around with as Snyder and company look to keep their torrid form going and rise even higher up the Western standings.
More than three years after he entered the NBA as something of an international man of mystery, we still don’t have a ton of insight into what exactly Dante Exum can be. Jazz fans have been wondering about the height of his ceiling for years, and about how he can fit alongside Mitchell for months. Now, at long last — and with restricted free agency staring down Exum this summer — we’ll start to get a fresh look at the possibilities for an intriguing player and a compelling team, both now and for the future.
More from Yahoo Sports:
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Drug extortion plot forced me from job: ESPN president
• Viewing guide to Day 1 of the NCAA tournament
• Obama’s surprising pick to win NCAA tournament
• NFL free agency winners and losers: Tough week for Pats