SALT LAKE CITY — Dante Exum remembers driving to the hoop and making a difficult layup on the first day of Utah Jazz open gym. Newly acquired George Hill, the man who will eat into Exum’s minutes, immediately came over and offered some advice.
That was one of the first notable moments of the Exum-Hill relationship that the Jazz hope will be beneficial to all.
“I think for someone just to come in straight up the first day, and not knowing me at all, to be able to come in and correct me, that’s the kind of player that I need,” Exum said. “So from then we built a good relationship.”
Exum used the word “excited” repeatedly this week to describe his feelings. His mood is understandable considering he hadn’t participated in a full normal practice since tearing his ACL while playing with the Australian national team in the summer of 2015.
The 21-year-old started 41 games as a rookie and is the point guard of the future for the Jazz after being selected No. 5 in the 2014 draft. But general manager Dennis Lindsey traded for Hill, an eight-year veteran chasing his first NBA title, during the offseason.
There could easily be some animosity between two competitors wanting as many minutes as possible, but Hill is eager to mentor and Exum wants to learn.
“That’s just how I am,” Hill said. “When I first got (to San Antonio) I was a young rookie that didn’t know any better. Tim (Duncan) did the same thing with me. Kind of put his arm around me and kind of (showed) me the way. As a rookie I needed that. Me coming in, that’s what we needed here, a little veteran leadership. If I can see something that makes his game a little better, I try to do that.”
Lindsey seems to have pulled off the tricky task of adding veteran pieces to an established roster without disrupting the character of the team. The Jazz are mostly low-key, go-to-work grinders. Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw fit that mold.
Everyone wants minutes, but everyone wants to win and end a four-season playoff drought.
“I think our younger guys are smart and understand,” coach Quin Snyder said. “They’re smart enough to understand the opportunity they have to play with some of these guys.”
Exum is 100 percent healed from his injury and has no limitations in practice. He added 10 pounds of muscles to his lanky 6-foot-6 frame and said his shot is much better than during his rookie year, when he shot 34.9 percent from the field.
Snyder said he’s shown some burst on the court and just needs to continue to grow overall.
Exum has added a floater from the paint to his game — a play that tore his ACL. There were some mental hurdles to clear and to gain trust in the knee and trust that he can get up when knocked down, he said. So far he has.
There were difficult stretches last season as Exum would sit behind the bench during home games and remain in Salt Lake City on road trips. But he was able to better learn how Snyder wants the team run by sitting with the coaches and listening each night.
Hill is learning the intricacies of Snyder’s system himself, but he has played in defense-first systems in Indiana and San Antonio. His best season came in 2014-15 when he averaged career highs with 16.1 points, 5.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds and a 47.7 shooting percentage. Hill’s 3-point percentage rose to a career-high 40.8 percent last season.
The 30-year old has missed the playoffs just once since entering the NBA and reached the Eastern Conference finals twice. That experience is part of the reason the Jazz traded for Hill, but that’s not necessarily easy to pass along.
“I don’t think you can teach that part,” Hill said. “I think more of what we’re coming here for is to lead by example. The way we carry ourselves. The way we work out in the gym. The things that we do to position ourselves to be the best player we can be at that given time. Just communicating. Everyone being on the same page. That’s what we can bring.”