Dante Exum is one of the hardest Cleveland Cavaliers to project. It’s not exactly clear what the Cavs think of him or how much they want to utilize him. He was acquired last year in the Jordan Clarkson trade as something of a flyer and is still just 25 despite being in the league since 2014. He also has had numerous injuries and hasn’t played more than 42 games in the last three seasons after playing all 82 as a rookie and 66 the following season.
Notably, he’s also in the last year of his contract and is playing to earn a new deal, whether that’s with the Cavs or elsewhere. The Cavs’ coronavirus-induced break also seems to have done him some good.
“Yeah, I think a lot of people can look at it as a negative, where we’ve been off for a long time,” Exum said during a recent media availability session on Zoom. “With me, I tried to turn it into a positive. I think it’s, six-seven months where I was able to get my body right, do the right thing. ... I was doing a lot of corrective work, making sure when I’m landing, my knees were going in the right place, a lot of balance work.”
What their last season was like
On Christmas Eve last year, Exum was traded to the Cavs. He made his Cleveland debut on Dec. 27 in a loss to the Celtics, playing just under 15 minutes, scoring 9 points to go along with 1 assist and 2 steals. He had his best game in a Cavs uniform on Jan. 5, scoring 28 points and dishing out 2 assists in a loss to the Wolves. He then missed the next three games due to injury and would later miss eight more games after getting hurt again.
With Cleveland, Exum appeared in 24 games, averaging 5.6 points and 1.4 assists in 16.8 minutes per game. Interestingly, he also shot 35.1% on 1.5 three-pointers per game. Aside from his rookie year, when he shot 31.4% on three-pointers on 3.2 attempts per game, Exum has never had a better shooting season. Maybe that’s a sign that he’s improving enough to make teams respect his shot more?
What their role could look like
Exum projects a bench piece off the bench as a guard/wing hybrid. He plays unselfishly — maybe to a fault — and runs the floor well. He’s an intriguing fit next to Collin Sexton in particular because the two could push the pace, Sexton could offer spacing off of Exum and Exum could handle the better offense guard.
There are a few things to worry about though. For one, there are a lot of bodies to play on the wing. Is Exum going to have a substantial role where he ends up ahead of, or on par with, Kevin Porter Jr., Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler? That seems unlikely. But maybe he can be the third point guard behind Sexton and Darius Garland.
Secondly, it’s fair to wonder what Exum’s impact really can be. Opposing defenses don’t respect his shot, so he’s limited in how he can attack even though he has the right intent – he’s just at a disadvantage from the start. Secondly, his handle is a little loose and it limits his ability to drive and attack. It’s partly why he’s always had a poor turnover rate.
Key stat to watch
For Exum, it’s all about availability. If he can’t stay healthy and on the floor, then nothing else matters. There’s a lot to like — he profiles a good defender, runs the floor well and is a willing passer — and there are ways he could make this Cavs team better. How Cleveland deploys him, and how much of a shot he gets, will say a lot about their interest in maybe having him stick around beyond this season.
Prediction for this player
Exum’s going to get a chance to play. As far as backup point guards go, he’s worth a longer look than Matthew Dellavedova. However, it’s hard to see him having a significant role due to injury concerns and the other players at the position.