We only had brief glimpses of Dante Exum before summer league. There were clips, pictures, but nothing that provided a fully-formed picture. Zealotry and skepticism often clashed whenever the discussion turned to Exum — his natural talent versus his relative inexperience; his highlights versus inferior competition; his polished personality versus his apparent plans to get to the Lakers no matter what. We all had a different concept of Dante Exum in our minds. But no matter what a person’s concept or what side of the argument they fell on, everyone, everyone was fascinated.
That allure only further gathered mass and momentum once the Jazz selected Exum fifth overall. Now, it wasn’t just a matter of whether Exum was the real deal, but what his arrival meant for the rest of the Jazz — specifically, Trey Burke. Would they play them together, even though Exum’s jump shot, one of his most noted deficiencies, would cause spacing issues? Do they start Exum at the point and bring Burke off the bench or just flat out trade him while his value is relatively high? Foster’s may be Australian for beer, but Dante Exum is Australian for Intrigue.
The first saturday of the Las Vegas Summer League was Exum’s first taste of NBA competition (lowest level though it may be) and it was our first taste of Exum. His box score wasn’t particularly noteworthy, and if you judged his performance solely on that line of numbers, you’d think his first game was a major disappointment.
But to actually watch him…
I’d always wanted to see the northern lights. At my summer camp in Wisconsin, they’d make the occasional appearance, but I always seemed to miss them. I’d seen pictures of vivid, eery luminescent greens and purples and blues slithering through the sky, but it wasn’t enough. Finally, one night, during my last year as a camper, a friend peeked through our cabin window to tell us the lights could be seen from the upper-most point of camp. I burst out the cabin door, raced to the upper baseball diamond, and froze the second I looked up.
There were no lazy waves of green or purple or blue, but rather faint white wisps streaking through the sky. Some burst up and down like an EKG tracking the beats of a racing heart, while others swirled and coalesced into one another. It wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was more captivating than anything portrayed in picture.
That’s what it was like to watch Dante Exum. All eyes were fixed only on him every second he was on the court. He mesmerized the audience not because he dominated, but because finally, before us, was thing we’d heard about, read about, watched, everything but actually seen in person (most of us, anyways). And even though he didn’t dominate, he made the clear the worries about his transition to the NBA were blown out of proportion, if not entirely unfounded.
His vision was uncanny. He didn’t always get an assist, either because his teammate would blow the bucket or the pass would be off target, but that he could even see the angle and the play was enough to solidify his position as a point guard.
The form on his jump shot looked fine — not picture perfect, but certainly not broken. It seems to be just a matter of adding strength and consistency before he becomes at least reliable from deep. The Jazz alternated between playing him off the ball with Burke and playing him at point while Burke was off the bench. The latter presented an awkward tension, not necessarily between the two players, but almost in that they were trying to prove something: that they could play with each other, and that neither needed to be moved to the bench. Regardless, Exum played much better as the sole point guard, looking much more comfortable with the ball in his hands the majority of the time, rather than sharing custody with Burke. That’s not to say the two can’t play together, or that the Jazz should already be working the phones to see what they can get for Burke, just that it’s going to take time to make it work.
Even with summer league’s conclusion, we still don’t have a complete picture of just who Dante Exum — either the player or the person — truly is, because he himself isn’t yet complete. The talent’s there, undeniably so, but just as undeniable is his need of development; the first game proved as much. But we do at least have a better, more recent picture. No longer are we saddled with simple clips or the equivalent of grainy, years-old photos. Instead, what we now have is closer to a high-definition polaroid, slowly being shaken, just now coming into focus.