Well, Adrian Wojnarowski has now welcomed us to the weekend with some particularly grim and depressing NBA news: Dante Exum could miss the entire upcoming season with a separated left shoulder. Frig.
Not that Exum is especially important to my personal enjoyment of an NBA season, but, damn. This would be Exum’s second lost season due to injury. He played 82 games as a rookie in 2014, but suffered a torn ACL in 2015 while playing with the Australian national team, causing him to miss his sophomore season. He played 66 games last season, but shot the ball poorly and generally looked like a guy who hadn’t fully recovered his shiftiness and agility after rehabbing the knee injury. Shelvin Mack—the Shelvin Mack—leapt past him in the pecking order at point guard, and that is generally not the kind of thing that inspires a lot of optimism.
But Exum looked great during Summer League action this summer, and the thought was that the additional recovery time would put Exum back on his previous developmental path, pointing towards a potential future as Utah’s starting point guard. Mack moved to Orlando in free agency, clearing the way for Exum to take full control of the backup gig behind Ricky Rubio. The absolute best-case scenario for Jazz fans would’ve had Exum and rookie Donovan Mitchell emerging quickly as the backcourt of the future, a prospect that looked totally possible as the two tore their way through Utah and Las Vegas Summer League competition. Now the team has to find a way to stabilize their guard rotation and, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks points out, figure out whether that means opening up a roster spot for heretofore presumptive odd-man-out Raul Neto.
This is an important year for Exum, not just as a developmental prospect, but as a guy who makes his living playing professional basketball. The Jazz picked up Exum’s fourth-year option last October, making Exum a restricted free agent next summer. Restricted free agency was brutal for the 2017 class—only Otto Porter signed a maximum or near-maximum deal, and bonafide rotation guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaMychal Green, and Nikola Mirotic signed short-term bargain deals—and 2018 projects to be every bit as rough, with 2018 salary cap projections falling with every new calculation. Three years ago Exum looked like he would easily find his way to a major payday next summer—now he will be struggling to prove he’s worth more than a flier. The math was tough even before Exum separated his shoulder and cost himself his best chance at reminding the league of his exciting potential. That is a nightmarishly unfair arc for a really talented young dude. What a raw deal. Injuries are the worst.