Phoenix Suns: Dante Exum should be a trade target

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images /

Dante Exum hasn’t lived up to expectations yet, but the young point guard could be exactly what the Phoenix Suns are looking for.

It’s no secret that the Phoenix Suns’ weakest position heading into the season is point guard. Maybe Brandon Knight can be the answer, or maybe Elie Okobo will be better than expected, but the 1-spot doesn’t look great at the moment.

None of Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Elfrid Payton or Tyler Ulis has excelled next to Devin Booker, for a myriad of different reasons. Usually, it’s either because they’re ball-dominant, or poor defenders.

Enter Dante Exum. At 6’6″ and with a wingspan longer than 6’9″, he’s got the body and athleticism to guard 1-3. He could cover up for Devin Booker on defense by taking the tougher assignment in the opposing backcourt, much like Klay Thompson does for Stephen Curry.

Add in Josh Jackson and Trevor Ariza, and suddenly you’ve got a starting lineup that can switch everything 1-4. If Deandre Ayton develops into a real rim protector early on (admittedly no sure thing), this is already a solid squad defensively.

Offensively, Exum could be an important addition too. Although offense has been what he’s struggled with most so far in his young career, there are some reasons for optimism. The following table shows his per 36 minutes stats over his NBA career, to control for the differences in playing time from season to season.

Per 36 Minutes Table

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/18/2018.

In almost every statistical category, Exum has steadily improved. His number of assists is the most critical stat (other than points), as he jumped to 6.6 per 36 minutes last year from an average of 3.6 in his other two years.

One negative is that his 3-point shooting seemed to regress, dropping to 27.3 percent in 2017-18. However, he only played 14 games due to injury, and that shooting percentage came on only 18 shots — much too small of a sample size to be meaningful. His free throw shooting is solid though, hovering near 80 percent the last two years, so it would seem there’s a good shooter in there somewhere.

One could claim that the small sample size of 14 games also means his improvements in points and assists shouldn’t count either, but he did look better on the court. He still doesn’t totally look like a primary ball-handler, but he’s solid as a secondary guy attacking closeouts, and he still just recently turned 23.

Igor Kokoskov could make sure that Exum is always next to at least one of Booker, Knight and Jackson. All four of these players may not be a true lead ball-handler in the mold of Chris Paul or Steve Nash, but as long as they have someone else to help share the load, they should be fine.

Why would the Utah Jazz give him up?

The Utah Jazz were a great defensive team last year, second in the NBA in defensive rating. However, offense was more of a struggle; they were only 16th in the league in offensive rating.

Much of the problem was due to their personnel. A good portion of Utah’s rotation is devoted to defense-first guys that aren’t shot creators, namely guys like Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Thabo Sefolosha.

Obviously, Donavon Mitchell can create his own shot fairly well. Ricky Rubio can create for others and Joe Ingles is somewhere between the two.

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The Jazz’s defense was enough to help them upset the disjointed Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, as they held OKC under 100 points in three of the six games. Mitchell was efficient and effective, scoring 28.5 points a game on 46.2 percent shooting from the field and 36.4 percent from deep. Ricky Rubio even had a triple-double.

Then, the Jazz ran into the Houston Rockets, and it was their turn to score fewer than 100 points in three of the five games they played. Mitchell’s scoring dipped to 19.6 points a game on a dismal 36.0 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from deep. A hamstring injury Rubio suffered in the last game against the Thunder kept him out of the entire Rockets series.

The Jazz were outgunned against the Rockets, yes, but they lost mainly because they had no other creators. When the Rockets switched everything and forced the Jazz to win with isolations instead of Quin Snyder’s preferred sets, they weren’t able to.

That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the personnel. Mitchell was great all year, but carrying the Jazz to an underdog victory over the second-best team in the league would’ve been a Herculean task. But that’s exactly the problem: He was the only one on the team who could create his own shot, and once the Rockets stopped him, there was no one else in their way.

When the game slows down in the playoffs, a team needs more than one person that it can go to for a good look every time down. The Jazz have a guard that can do so in Mitchell, but they could use a wing that’s different from all their 3-and-D guys. Hello, T.J. Warren.

Warren is only 24, which is one year older (and one year closer to his prime) than Exum. He’s better than Exum now, which helps the contending Jazz, but he also could grow alongside Mitchell as his second fiddle on offense.

Warren has a shot-creating skill-set that no other wings on Jazz roster really have (now that Iso Joe Johnson is gone). He has a very similar contract to Exum’s, with Warren’s being slightly more expensive and a year longer.

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Starting Warren next to Gobert would give the Jazz a bit more spacing, though not a ton as more of a mid-range threat. Still, with two complete non-shooters in Gobert and Rubio, every little bit counts.

He doesn’t even need to start to be an important member of the roster. He could be a Lou Williams-like sixth man who comes off the bench and is the focal point of the offense when he’s in. He scored 19.6 points per game last year, so he’s clearly more than capable of putting up points in bunches.

What an exact trade would look like is tough to say. Exum was the fifth pick in the draft just a few years ago, and likely still carries more potential, but Warren has been the more productive player by far up to this point.

Injuries have also greatly limited Exum, and the best ability is availability. That’s been a struggle  for him seeing as he’s played in only 162 of a possible 328 regular season games (49.4 percent) due to various maladies.

Perhaps Exum and the Jazz’s first round pick this year is enough to get Warren away from the Phoenix Suns, though perhaps that’s too much. Maybe other players or picks would be involved as well. The deal also couldn’t go through until Jan. 15 since he just re-signed in free agency.

One thing’s for sure though: Both Exum and Warren could use a change of scenery to take their careers to the next level. Swapping places with each other could be the best thing that’s ever happened to them.

Next. 2018 NBA free agency tracker - Grades for every deal so far. dark

Special thanks to Disqus user Marty for suggesting a deal centered around the Phoenix Suns swapping Warren for Exum in the comments of another post.