LAS VEGAS — Summer league was just a stopover. World tours are like that.
Home in Australia for the final season of the equivalent of high school play, ending with a national championship in December. Los Angeles in February for months of workouts to prepare for the NBA. New York in June for the Draft and being picked fifth by the Jazz. Vegas in July for Summer League. Australia on Tuesday for the start of training camp for the national team in advance of the World Cup. Spain in late August for the re-named world championships, as part of a team that could include Cameron Bairstow of the Bulls, Aron Baynes of the Spurs, Matthew Dellavedova of the Cavaliers and the country’s next basketball prodigy, Ben Simmons. Salt Lake City again, finally, in mid-September.
Dante Exum is attempting the biggest competition jump of anybody in the rookie class and he can’t even get his feet set for takeoff. Before Summer League, he mostly went against high school teams. Australian high school teams. There was the star turn at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., in April 2013 against a United States squad that included Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle, but that was one game. There was another boost to his draft stock later that summer in the under-19 world championships in Prague, but, again, briefly.
Unlike the majority of every draft class that steels itself with years of AAU circuits and college play or leagues in Europe with older professionals, Exum not only has to make the transition at age 19 but with very little in his basketball background to prepare for the NBA. He has never been seriously challenged for weeks at a time, let the months waiting for him with the Jazz schedule as a rookie.
“The last games I played was high school games and I’m one of the bigger guys out there that can push guys around,” he said. “Here, I get into the paint and I’m getting knocked over.”
Literally and figuratively. Exum faced NBA competition for the first time and shot 30.8 percent in five games, ending with Friday’s victory over the Trail Blazers at Thomas & Mack Center, while averaging 7.2 points and piling up more turnovers (15) than assists (14). He had good moments, but nothing close to a good game, with making four of 10 shots and three assists against one turnover in the opener against Philadelphia probably holding up as the best.
“It’s been a big couple weeks for him,” said Brad Jones, the Jazz assistant coach who ran the team in the Summer-League games. “He’s got a lot going on. He’s had some ups and downs through this, but it’s also why we play Summer League, for him to go through the ups and downs. The little challenge, we talked to him at halftime about, we wanted to see him finish on a strong note. I thought he tried to play through and luckily made a great play and hit that little floater to kind of seal that game for us.
“Now he can go back and regroup a little bit. I know he’s going to his national team, but hopefully now he has a level of understanding of what he has to do every day to be successful. There were some times he showed some brilliant, brilliant things this last week. Then again, there’s been some times where he’s been kicked in the rear end a little bit. Hopefully he’ll take this, process it and come back in the fall ready to go and to help because we think he’s got a bright future.”
Exum considers himself a point guard, leaving new coach Quin Snyder with the decision early in his tenure of whether Exum and incumbent Trey Burke play together or have a position battle that is tracked on two continents. And there is the matter of how fresh Exum will be for training camp after the busy summer and a pretty quick turnaround from the end of the World Cup to the start of training camp, though Exum said he has been promised schedule breaks by the Australian national team. Almost everything, in other words, remains to be determined.
The five games in Las Vegas were a glimpse, for the Jazz trying to get him into the system and just as much for Exum facing major competition on a regular basis for the first time. That’s the perspective right there: Summer League counts as major competition. That’s how big of a canyon jump Exum is attempting.