OKLAHOMA CITY -- On an afternoon when Russell Westbrook did what's amazingly become routine for him, recording another high-scoring triple-double, he wasn't the only point guard on the Chesapeake Energy Arena court to display gasp-inducing athleticism.
Dante Exum, the 21-year-old Australian still trying to find his way in the NBA after a major detour due to a serious knee injury, flashed the talent that tempted the Utah Jazz to take him with the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Exum's career-high 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting occurred in a 112-104 loss Saturday to Westbrook (33 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds) and his Oklahoma City Thunder in a game that was essentially decided when Jazz big man Rudy Gobert was a late scratch due to soreness in his lower right leg. But this performance, and really this entire season, is about the big picture for Exum.
Exum spent much of the first half of the season on the fringe of Utah's rotation as he continued the rehabilitation process from the torn ACL in his left knee that robbed him of his sophomore season. But Exum showed enough glimpses before the All-Star break to influence the Utah front office's decision to ultimately pass on picking up Deron Williams, either via a clearance-rack trade or claiming him on waivers, to back up injury-prone starting point guard George Hill.
The Jazz didn't want to stunt Exum's growth after seeing him regain his rare explosiveness about 18 months after his knee buckled while playing for the Australian national team. There are a few point guards, such as Westbrook, who accelerate faster than Exum. Good luck finding one who stands 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan.
"What's happened with him is, as he's gotten more physically capable, kind of back to where he has been, he's explosive," said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, a former Duke point guard trying to teach Exum the intricacies of playing the position. "He's fast. He's got a gear. What's happening to him now is it's like having a really, really fast car and you're learning how to drive.
"When you drive slow, it's a lot easier to read the billboards and make the right turns and catch the lights. For him right now, that car is revved up and it's an adventure sometimes. But pretty soon, he'll learn the lay of the land and stay on the road."
There are still a lot of stops and starts for Exum, so to speak. It seemed that Exum was turning the corner when he came out of the All-Star break by scoring 12 points in 16 minutes during a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, his third consecutive double-digit scoring outing. Then he had a grand total of two points in the Jazz's next two games combined, including a game against the Thunder.
Snyder emphasizes the importance of evaluating Exum with an even keel. He's a kid with less than 2,800 NBA minutes under his belt who didn't get the benefit of college or D-League seasoning.
"It's a process," Snyder said. "As I've said before, I'm not going to get too high if it looks like he had a really good game, which he did tonight. And I'm not going to get too upset if he doesn't play as well, like he did last time we were here. That's just part of the process. That's what young guys go through. The key thing is for him to continue to learn."
For example, one facet of the game the Jazz coaching staff constantly works on with Exum is setting up defenders to use his speed coming off pick-and-rolls. He admits he often gets himself stuck because he goes flying off the screen full speed instead of reading the defense.
"I've been watching tape, watching film, working on it, and the biggest thing that's happened is just the slow dribble coming off the pick-and-roll so I can kind of assess and see what I've got and see what the big does," Exum said. "I think that's helped me a lot. I've got to continue to keep working on that and working on those reads."
Perhaps his most impressive buckets Saturday showed progress in such situations. In the second quarter, he caught Westbrook and Steven Adams cheating toward the middle of the floor where a double screen was set up, accelerated after crossing over to his left hand and slashed for a lefty layup that Adams couldn't challenge.
"Using that [car] analogy, I need to learn to kind of slow down a little bit before I put my foot on the pedal," Exum said. "A lot of guys are able to just stay in front of you if you're just going 100 miles per hour, and that's something I've got to learn. I've got to learn about playing with a little bit of pace, and when I catch them out of position, that's when I put on the jets."
It certainly hasn't always been a smooth ride for Exum this season, but it's not crazy to think Snyder can help prepare him to get the keys to the Jazz offense at some point down the road.
"He's on me a lot," Exum said. "It's all positive stuff. He's just trying to help me. He knows what I can do. He's just trying to help me get there."