After a fantastic finish to the 2014-15 season that saw them boast the NBA's No. 1 defense and sixth-best record after the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz entered this summer as a team on the rise, chock full of young talent under coach Quin Snyder and looking to have a chance to leap into the Western Conference playoff picture as soon as this coming campaign. The positive vibes took a major hit Tuesday, though, as point guard Dante Exum, the No. 5 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for his native Australia in an international exhibition game against Slovenia.
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The 20-year-old guard, who was suiting up for the Boomers as they tune up for the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championship later this month, landed awkwardly on a jump stop in the lane while driving to the basket. He appeared to be in pain as soon as he came down, without any contact from another player:
Exum exited the game after just six minutes of playing time, and later returned to the Australia bench with his knee wrapped:
— NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) August 4, 2015
The Jazz initially reserved comment on the severity of the injury until Exum had returned to Salt Lake City "for further medical evaluation by the Utah Jazz medical staff and official healthcare partner University of Utah Health Care." The team shared the results of that evaluation Thursday, confirming what initial reports suggested and what Jazz fans feared: Exum's left ACL is torn, and will require surgical repair.
“First and foremost, our overriding concern is with Danté and his long-term health,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said in the team's Thursday announcement. “We are continuing to work closely with our medical staff, Danté and his representation in order to reach an accurate diagnosis and recommended treatment so that we can provide him with the best possible care. We all know how hard he will work to make a full recovery and look forward to his return to play.”
The Jazz didn't offer an expected timeline for Exum's return, but the typical recovery period after an ACL surgery slots in at around six months. "This injury will almost certainly cost Exum the full 2015-16 season," writes Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Exum's injury will likely revive the sort of debates we saw last summer, after Indiana Pacers star Paul George's horrific broken leg during a USA Basketball scrimmage, about the relative risks and rewards of NBA players suiting up for national-team duty during summers off from their club teams.
For what it's worth, as Falk noted, Utah's Lindsey recently struck a "gotta hear both sides" sort of tone on the matter, trumpeting the importance of a team protecting its interests and investments while also respecting players' "loyalty toward their home country" and crediting international competition as a development tool for players he's worked with in previous front-office stints with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. He need only look back to last summer as an indication of how major minutes for Team France in the 2014 FIBA World Cup helped turn Rudy Gobert into a shot-blocking, rim-protecting, dunk-detonating justification for trading Enes Kanter and a prospective pivot point for the franchise's fortunes.
Add in the non-contact nature of the injury — which you could argue could just as easily happen during run-of-the-mill workouts, in five-on-five at summer hot spots like Impact Basketball, during a run at the Drew League or in the Seattle Pro-Am, or anywhere else players play when they're not in-season because, y'know, they're players — and it becomes tougher to see Exum's misfortune, as sad as it might be, as a tipping point in keeping NBA players off national teams in the years to come. (Especially since the call to transform international tournaments like the World Cup and Olympics into more youth-focused, 22-and-under events might not have spared the 20-year-old Exum anyway.)
Exum missing serious time seems to deal a blow to the Jazz's hopes of continuing last season's surge and vaulting into the ranks of Western playoff hopefuls. That might surprise those who only looked at his rookie numbers, which certainly didn't leap off the page, as he averaged just 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game, shooting just 34.9 percent from the field, 31.4 percent from the 3-point line and 62.5 percent from the line, while only attempting 32 free throws in 1,817 minutes.
But a relative lack of on-the-ball aggression and off-the-ball shooting prowess were to be expected of a 19-year-old making the leap from Australian high school competition to facing off against NBA defenses. The 6-foot-6 Exum's ability to harass opposing guards, however — to use his length, quickness, foot speed and agility to mirror ball-handlers as they maneuvered around the court, as captured by Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney — was a very pleasant surprise, and helped make him an integral part of a Jazz team that ranked as far and away the NBA's stingiest defense after mid-February.
A full year of adding functional strength to his frame figured to make Exum more capable of absorbing contact and finishing around the basket, and the return to health of attacking two-guard Alec Burks alongside star swingman Gordon Hayward on the wing looked likely to limit Exum's exposure as an on-ball creator, giving him both more opportunities to attack defenses that had already been scrambled by an initial action and more breathing room to develop his playmaking talents at a measured pace without being called upon to serve as a primary table-setter. As Jazz radio commentator David Locke discussed Wednesday morning, losing Exum for a significant chunk of time could derail that development and scuttle the timetable that Lindsey and company have set forth for this young roster.
It also puts much more on the shoulders of Utah's other three point guards: 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke, whose offensive and defensive shortcomings through two seasons opened the door for Exum to take over starting duties last year; 2013 second-rounder Raul Neto, whom the Jazz brought over this summer after spending the last four seasons in Spain's ACB; and Bryce Cotton, whom the San Antonio Spurs picked up as an undrafted free agent out of Providence last summer, who spent most of the season lighting up the D-League, and who impressed in limited minutes for the Jazz in a late-season call-up. None of the three have much in the way of a track record of pro (or NBA, at least) success, and none profile as nearly the defensive force that Exum proved to be, even as the youngest player in the league at his position.
That's led to some debate as to whether the Jazz, who still have about $6.7 million in salary cap space left to spend if they'd like, should look outside the organization for a veteran point guard who might represent an immediate upgrade in the event of a lengthy Exum absence. The remaining free-agent crop is pretty thin, though — how do John Lucas III, Jason Terry, Donald Sloan, Norris Cole, Ish Smith, Will Bynum, Toney Douglas, Darius Morris and the well-traveled Luke Ridnour grab you? The trade market figures to be similarly light on prospective difference-makers, though it could offer a couple of rotation-minute caretakers. Case in point: Jody Genessy of the Deseret News reports that Utah's "interested in pursuing a trade for [Washington] Wizards guard Garrett Temple," a defensive-minded 6-foot-6 combo guard who played for Snyder when he coached the Austin Toros, the Spurs' D-League affiliate, and who has seen time both on and off the ball as a reserve for the Wizards over the course of the last three seasons.
Even if a comparatively smaller addition's in the offing, it seems likely that Exum's injury will prompt Lindsey, Snyder and company to give Burke one last real shot at showing the kind of playmaking electricity that made him National Player of the Year during his final season at Michigan, while keeping Hayward and Burks in primary playmaking roles and allowing Cotton and Neto to compete for backup minutes. Quiet as it's kept, Burke might not have been quite as much of a defensive millstone last season as you might've expected, especially after the great midseason shakeup to jettison Kanter (all stats to follow per 100 possessions):
Jazz most used line-up in 2nd half of season - Exum, Hayward, Ingles, Favors, Gobert was +.5 in 187 mins. Put Burke in for Exum +14.9
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) August 5, 2015
Trey Burke Defensive Rtg Post All-Star: 94.4 (95.2 with him on bench)
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) August 5, 2015
Trey Burke defensive rating with Enes Kanter was 110.1. With Rudy Gobert was 99.7. Lots of Trey bad defense was who he was with
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) August 5, 2015
There are caveats there, of course. Burke largely came off the bench post-All-Star, so you can't make an apples-to-apples comparison of going against first-teams and second units, and it doesn't feel particularly revelatory that an individual perimeter defender's numbers would look decisively better with a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate behind him than with a noted sieve on the back line.
That said, as it stands, Burke will have Gobert behind him yet again this season. If the acres of length and combined defensive acumen of Gobert, Derrick Favors, Hayward and Burks can help mitigate Burke's shortcomings on that end, the Jazz could still field a fierce defense and a sound starting five.
If Burke can hold his own there while also translating all the motivation he gets from naysayers into more frequent made shots, Utah could still move forward next season. But with so much of the Jazz's plans riding on their young core rising together, and on Exum's ability to develop into a top-flight lead guard capable of supporting one of the league's best young frontcourts, the young Aussie's unfortunate setback could still represent a significant detour in Utah's roadmap back to contention.
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