Utah Jazz: The future for Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum


The Utah Jazz have a unique situation developing at the point guard spot that will have a lot to say about where their organization goes over the next few years.

After drafting him with the fifth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz had to have felt that Dante Exum would become their point guard of the future. However, after a tough rookie season and a second year missed entirely due to injury, the team had to turn elsewhere for help at the position.

Reinforcements were found in the form of George Hill, whom the Jazz acquired in a three-team trade, giving up only the 12th pick in last year’s draft, which later turned into Taurean Prince. Of course, Hill had only one season left on his contract, and later wound up going to the Sacramento Kings in free agency.

Utah didn’t put up much of a fight to retain Hill, but that’s explained by their trade for Ricky Rubio, which predated the start of free agency by a mere couple of hours. Exchanging a 2018 first round pick for the former Minnesota Timberwolves point guard, the Jazz received one of the best playmakers in the league with a penchant for hard-nosed defense.

Rubio’s deal extends for another two seasons, at which point he’ll be an unrestricted free agent and on track to receive a substantial contract at the peak of his prime. Depending on how the next two years go, the Jazz could seek to retain their new floor general, but his individual play won’t be the only factor influencing this process.

Although he’ll be entering his fourth year in the league, Exum is a lot less experienced than you might think. For one, he’s still only 22 years old, the age of several of this year’s draft picks. For another, his leash still hasn’t been fully taken off yet in terms of playing time.

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With just two seasons under his belt, this season will be critical to see if he can make the jump as a full-time role player.

Exum rotated between second and fourth string last season behind Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto, and with the latter out and no injuries at the moment, the depth chart should be settled to begin the year.

Encouraging Summer League play (scoring 20 points per game in Utah) could mean Exum finally snags the backup spot.

Neto has been a more complete player thus far in their respective careers, but there’s more riding on this season in Exum’s case.

The Australian’s rookie contract expires after this season, but he’ll be a restricted free agent, meaning the Jazz can match any offer he receives from another club. Exum is actually extension-eligible this season, but his body of work is far behind that of most other players who typically sign these deals (think Rudy Gobert last year).

Exum’s development is somewhat of a double-edged sword for Utah — the better he looks next season, the more confident the club will feel about extending him, but this will come with much more attention and offers from other teams.

Should the club commit to Exum long-term, this would presumably foreshadow the end of Rubio’s Utah career a couple years down the road, simply through financial constraint.

There is a possibility that Rubio and Exum could thrive together, as the latter is at his most efficient scoring off-ball through cuts and handoffs, but the shooting ability of both is rather lackluster to make this work consistently.

Although his future play isn’t as uncertain as Exum’s is, Rubio still has to prove that he’s worthy of a big extension. Luckily, he’ll have all the opportunity he needs next season, with a host of complementary players around him and no one who requires the ball in their hands to thrive.

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In the past, his complete inability to shoot from the outside or create for himself in the lane has hamstrung him and his team, but he turned a serious corner during the second half of 2016-17.

After the All-Star break last season, Rubio upped his scoring to 16.0 per game (up from 8.9), his assists to 10.5 per game (from 8.4), and most importantly, his 3-point shooting to 35 percent (up from 28 percent).

2016-17 was the first time he’d ever shot above 40 percent from the floor in any season. This didn’t have a huge impact on the team’s overall record, as they went 9-16 over the same time period, but it remains significant nonetheless. Perhaps playing in a less cramped offensive system with more competent teammates would expedite this even further.

Next season will probably be the biggest determinant for what the Jazz do with both Rubio and Exum. Can the latter finally become a consistent role player? Will Rubio take the next step and elevate his game?

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Only time will tell in both cases, although the “deadline” for the Jazz to make a decision will be much earlier for Exum. Having more prospects at a given position is a problem most teams would be begging to have, but Utah has to make sure it navigates the process correctly.