Not familiar with Dante Exum? You will be soon...
CHICAGO -- The area at the NBA draft combine where prospective players are herded for interviews is little more than an oversized garage, a dimly lit empty storage area in the back of Quest Multisport. Players are situated at folding tables with laminated name cards propped up to identify them. On Thursday two players, Iowa's Devyn Marble and Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, looked puzzled as a crush of reporters enveloped a table in a far corner.
"Who's over there?" Kilpatrick asked.
"Dante Exum," a league official replied.
"Who?" Marble said.
Exactly. Exum is an international man of mystery, an Australian import seen only in YouTube footage and heard from only in magazine profiles (cough, cough) and press back home. Not since Yao Ming has so little been known about a foreign-born player expected to deliver so much. On Thursday, Exum wandered around a crowded gym in relative anonymity, with scores of team executives and the 123 credentialed media members reasonably sure the 6-foot-6 teenager with the peach fuzz mustache was Exum -- though few could say with absolute certainty.
"Not a lot of people know me," Exum said, grinning. "This is kind of a meet and greet."
More than that, really. Next month an NBA team -- probably one picking in the top five -- will nab Exum and place the future of the franchise on his slender shoulders. A little background: Exum is the son of Cecil Exum, a reserve forward on the Michael Jordan-led North Carolina teams in the 1980s, whose claim to fame was that he would never let Jordan or James Worthy dunk on him in practice. Cecil migrated to Australia in the late '80s and achieved some success in the NBL. He fell in love with the country, and when his career ended Cecil and his wife, Desiree; his oldest son, Jamar; and infant twins, Dante and Tierra, made Australia their permanent home.
Dante gravitated toward basketball early, showcasing skills that quickly caught the eye of coaches at the prestigious Australia Institute of Sport. With the AIS team, Exum traveled the world, playing -- and often dominating -- in tournaments against players several years older than him. Soon, the major U.S. colleges began calling. The NBA was right behind them.
"A lot of people think I just was going to the NBA," Exum said. "People don't realize how difficult a decision it was. I had my five schools -- Oregon, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and UNC -- and I was going to pick one. A lot of guys have the college experience, and I wanted it. It was a hard thing to give up. But I realized [the NBA] was my dream and I wanted to go for it."
On Thursday, Exum faced U.S. reporters for the first time. Interviews at the combine are a predictable, maddening exercise. Television personalities want players to name their strengths and weaknesses; local reporters want to know how a player feels he would fit in with a specific team. It's less about learning something about a player than finding a quote to fit the narrative.
During a 25-minute Q&A session, Exum was hit with everything. A sampling:
• On his strengths: "Being an attacking point guard. Being good in transition. Being a rebounding guard."
• On playing for Orlando: "I know Victor Oladipo. They have [Nik] Vucevic, who is a great big man."
For Exum, the interviews with teams figure to be more revealing. He met with Phoenix, Philadelphia and Detroit on Wednesday and has many more -- including Orlando, Sacramento, the Lakers, Milwaukee, Boston and Utah -- scheduled for later this week. Those that have talked to him already have come away impressed.
"He seems like a really good kid," said an official from a team that interviewed Exum. "He's confident, but not cocky. Now we have to see if he can play."
Indeed. Like many projected top picks -- including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle -- Exum has elected not to participate in the combine. He will speak to teams and do strength and agility tests, but has directed his focus toward individual workouts. Exum has been working out in Los Angeles with respected trainer Rob McClanaghan since mid-February and says he feels sharp.
"Going into individual workouts, it's going to be important for me to perform," Exum said. "I have to catch up. I have not had some of the exposure of the other guys."
There is still so much about Exum that is unknown. Is he a point guard or is his future at the two? Exum insists he is a point -- "That's the position that has got me here, that's what I want to be going forward" -- though NBA teams have questions about his defense and playmaking. After overhauling his jump shot in 2012, Exum's perimeter shooting has improved significantly, though teams will undoubtedly want him to be more consistent. At 18, there is still plenty of time for him to grow.
Exum says he doesn't care where he gets drafted, as long as it's a good fit. And that could be anywhere. It could be Milwaukee, where he could join forces with Giannis Antetokounmpo. It could be Boston, where he could team with Rajon Rondo or, eventually, replace him. It could be L.A., where he could apprentice under Kobe Bryant -- with whom he shares an agent -- and eventually become the face of one of the NBA's marquee franchises.
As the questions slowed and the crowd began to disperse, Exum let slip a few smiles. "It is nice to get all the attention," Exum said. "I'm taking it one step at a time, and enjoying it." If Exum is as good as advertised, more will enjoy it, too.