Today in Fear the Sword’s season hiatus player review series: Dante Exum. Follow the whole series here.
The Cavs acquired Dante Exum for nothing. Jordan Clarkson, while better than Exum now, did not matter for the 2019-20 Cavs or beyond with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland seen as the guards of the future. Exum, three years younger, better and defensive and bigger at 6’6”, might. When a team pivots, it makes sense to see if a former top-five pick like Exum can fit. Think of the halted 2019-20 season and next year as a tryout.
There have been encouraging Exum moments too. For one, in 24 games with the Cavs, Exum posted a career-best 54.7% eFG%. He shot 35.1% on three-pointers and 37.5% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, per NBA.com. Neither numbers are great, but both encouraging. And what Exum is — secondary creator, good defender, athlete who can fun the floor well — is a good on-paper fit with what Cleveland is trying to right now. He’s an especially interesting fit with Garland due to his defensive ability and size that, in theory, allows the Cavs to move Garland off a primary ball handler.
The knock on Exum, though, is similar to the main knock on him in Utah: he can’t stay healthy. When he played for the Jazz, injuries like an ACL tear, ankle sprains and bone bruises hampered his development after a strong rookie year. With the Cavs, he missed three games in January and the last eight before the season was suspended. The first hiatus came after he scored 28 points against the Timberwolves and played maybe his best game as a Cav. That feels on track with the rest of his career.
Lineup data also paints an ugly picture of Exum’s impact. In two-man lineups, the Cavs are 14.4 points worse per 100 possessions when he plays with Sexton and 11.6 points worse per 100 possessions with Larry Nance Jr, per basketball-reference. Those happen to be the two players Exum has played the most season. Overall, Cavs lineups with Exum are being outscored by almost 11 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. That’s not all on Exum considering how bad Cleveland is, but it’s also not encouraging.
There’s still time for Exum to figure this out. Again: he’s only 24, a very good athlete and one of the Cavs’ best perimeter defenders. (Not that that means all that much, but it’s something.) If he get consistent minutes — something that didn’t happen in Cleveland before the season stopped — there’s a chance he figures it out. Maybe it won’t, and he’ll play out his time in Cleveland with little impact made due to injuries or because he’s ultimately not all that good. But maybe he’ll stay healthy and figure it out. That’s why teams like the Cavs make trades for players like Exum.