Dante Exum entices and confounds as NBA draft's biggest unknown

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Neither coach recalls the exact time or place, in a gym like countless others in a country full of them. Buried in routine, memory can be a foggy thing. Time blurs totals without the box score to stand as proof. But they remember what they saw the skinny Australian kid do that day.

Many of China’s basketball facilities are indistinguishable from one city to the next, following the exact same floor plans, defined only by what happens inside. And with just a few hundred in the crowd of one such arena, the legend of basketball’s biggest unknown rookie since Yao Ming began.

The year was 2010, the game a ragtag round-robin exhibition. At the half, a young group of amateurs from the Australian Institute of Sport trailed by a wide margin to a touring squad of American international pros and D-League types looking for new contracts. After three quarters, the gap was 16.

Then, a 6-foot-4, 15-year-old Dante Exum got to work, and the lead began to shrink.

“He was breaking people down, going to the hoop. Tremendous mid-range jump shooter,” remembers Bruce O’Neil, president of the United States Basketball Association. O’Neil, once the head coach at Hawaii, had organized the American trip. He had no idea who Exum was. Neither did anyone else.

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“At that age, you’d think a kid wouldn’t have the physical ability or be strong enough -- but he did everything to handle our guys,” says O’Neil. “He was quick, he had several steals in the second half, and wasn’t backing down from any of our seasoned players. And he was playing against 25-year-olds.”

The buckets fell fast and furious as the young point guard imposed his will. Attitudes turned serious on the court. And with the AIS trailing by three and the clock running down, Exum dribbled and pulled up from deep.

“That was when I couldn’t believe it,” O’Neil recalls. The shot dropped, almost predictably, for the final, remarkable three of Exum’s 25 fourth-quarter points.

In overtime, the Australians locked up the game. “Our guys just faded,” O’Neil adds. “Afterwards, we talked to their staff and asked where [Exum] was going to college. Well, it turned out he was barely even in high school.”

Ian Stacker knew his star pupil could play, but Exum’s performance brought with it a new type of promise. Later that day, Stacker would rave on the phone to Australian men’s national team head coach Brett Brown (now of the Philadelphia 76ers), compliments that earned Exum an invite to Olympic team camp that summer, just after his 16th birthday.

But after the game, Stacker’s first call went to Exum’s father Cecil, who played with Michael Jordan at North Carolina before a long Australian pro career. Stacker had coached Cecil in Geelong in 1996 -- Dante was barely a year old at the time -- and personally recruited the younger Exum to the AIS immediately after taking the head coaching job earlier in 2010.

“I rang Cecil and told him we had something special we were dealing with,” says Stacker, now the coach at Templestowe College in Melbourne. “He probably already knew, but for me, that was the moment. I’ve coached a long time here in Australia, I’ve seen a lot of good players, but never anyone with what Dante brings to the table.”

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Nearly four years later, exactly what Exum might become at the highest level has captivated the basketball world. The 18-year-old Aussie sits on the precipice of the NBA draft, a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a 6-foot-6 frame.

To be fair, Exum isn’t a complete unknown -- there’s just not a whole lot to go by. Given his athletic gifts, he only needed a few opportunities to ascend boards, suiting up at Adidas Nations in 2012, the Nike Hoop Summit and U19 World Championships the year after. Word of the prodigy from down under who could get to the basket at will and give ball handlers fits on the other end spread globally. Scouts and experts shaped the narrative. This kid can play. And the sky is the limit.

But with arguably no game experience against high-quality opponents, translating Exum’s game for comparison with college-tested prospects stateside is a more inexact science. He may be an elite prospect, but Exum hasn’t played full-court in front of NBA eyes since last July. And history isn’t kind as a point of comparison.

Exum should become just the fourth international player since 2006 to earn a top-five selection without playing college ball -- but that's little more than trivia. The others are Andrea BargnaniRicky Rubio and Jonas Valanciunas, all of whom have yet to deliver on their initial promise. The history of international guards taken in the lottery who found success at the NBA level starts and ends with Rubio, and the value of his accomplishments to date is debatable. The most successful Australian guard in league history is Patty Mills, a second-rounder out of St. Mary’s in 2009 who bounced around the league before enjoying a breakout playoffs with San Antonio this season.

His combine results (top-10 times in the sprint, shuttle run and agility drill), interviews and solo workouts for select teams make up the rest of the relatively minimal vault of public Exum knowledge. The outlook remains promising but frighteningly inconclusive in a deep draft where executives will face added pressure not to whiff. Assuming Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins go off the board first in some order, Philadelphia at No. 3 and the teams that follow will face the risk of selecting Exum over more proven college stars, including Joel Embiid (whose stock took a hit due to injury concerns), Noah Vonleh and, at Exum’s position, Marcus Smart. If one of those players pans out and Exum goes the route of past international disappointments, a general manager could lose his job.

“There just wasn’t much opportunity to see him play at a high level,” says Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations. “He did well at the Nike Hoop Summit and was good at the AIS, but those are low-level competitions. Not to rag on him -- the guy has a lot of talent -- but he’s a high-risk, high-reward kind of pick. Sometimes that can hurt you, and you have to take someone you’re more secure with. How long will it take him to learn to play in the NBA? Two years? Three? Immediately?”

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As complicated as a team investing in him could be, Exum’s personal decision to jump to the league was much simpler.

In 2012, Stacker raised the possibility of Dante making his move to the NBA as soon as possible (“I don’t work for an NBA team, but I thought he had that kind of potential,” he says). There was the alternative of playing in Australia’s NBL for a season first. Dante would be finishing his studies in December 2013, and with no shortage of high-major suitors, he thought hard about attending college in the United States like his father.

Because of Australia’s school calendar, Exum would have only been eligible to play in the second half of the college season. His other option was to wait until 2014-15 and play a whole year, delaying his NBA arrival. He visited campus at Indiana, held a scholarship from his father’s Tar Heels and had an offer to arrive midseason and go one (half, technically) and done under John Calipari at Kentucky.

"The way I looked at it," says Exum, "If I was going to go into a team that had already been established and played together all season, highlighting myself would have been difficult coming in as an outsider."

Turning heads with his play at the Hoop Summit and U19 Worlds helped clear up the picture. Exum was likely to go high in the first round whenever he chose to declare. He decided to make the jump.

Aiming to get a head-start on the league, Dante arrived in Los Angeles in February and ramped up his preparations. He began working out with Tim Grover, whose elite clientele include Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, with whom Exum shares agent Rob Pelinka.

Like most, Grover had little prior knowledge of his new charge. He was pleasantly surprised with the player he found.

“For a kid that young to have a mid-range game like that was really impressive,” says Grover. “Usually kids can either get all the way to the basket or they like to shoot from 18 feet and out, but he has the ability to get into that middle area. He already has the floaters, the pull-up, everything. You could tell there was a lot of time spent before I got in just working on his game -- he wasn’t just out there playing AAU basketball and running around.”

Much of that credit goes to Stacker and the AIS, who spent three years with Exum ironing out the wrinkles. The first order of business was his shooting form. With Australia at the U17 World Championships in 2012, Exum made just six of 35 three-point attempts (17.1 percent). He averaged 17.3 points in eight games, but just 2.5 assists. Those numbers were the origin of Exum's rap as a scoring guard who can’t shoot, the embodiment of his downside.

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After the tournament, Exum and Stacker met in private to discuss improvements (“If he wanted to get where we hope he gets to, that shot had to change,” Stacker says), and Dante accepted the challenge, devoting the year that followed to a fix. On coach’s orders, he would frequently spend portions of practice apart from his teammates, putting up jumper after jumper on a side hoop.

At the U19 Worlds a year later, Exum improved markedly, hitting 17 of 51 (33.3 percent) from three-point range and averaging 18.2 points with nearly four assists per game. Opponents had to at least respect him on the perimeter, and he could still get wherever he wanted on the floor. This was the big, dynamic scoring point guard scouts fell in love with, the player who showed up in L.A. with an improving, though not yet NBA-quality jump shot.

The other major concern: Exum’s NBA position. If you see him as a quick but not vertically explosive two-guard still learning to shoot, his luster slightly fades in a league where athletic wings are plentiful. But Exum and those who have coached him insist his natural spot is at the one, making plays with the ball in his hands. It helps that bigger point guards are in vogue -- one could point to the success Michael Carter-Williams, another 6-6 rookie point guard, had in Philadelphia.

"It doesn't matter to me," Exum says, brushing off the talk. "People can question all they like. I think they look at me and say I can play multiple positions, so it's more of a positive than a negative. My natural position is point guard, I've been put there my whole life. It's not by choice."

Numbers close to what Williams posted during his Rookie of the Year campaign would be an outstanding start for Exum. And rumors continue to link him to Philadelphia, as Brett Brown holds more firsthand knowledge of his game than any coach in the league. The thought of an Exum/Carter-Williams tandem entices on paper ("I'm willing to go into a situation where we can work together," Exum says) -- a huge, quick backcourt featuring two slashing guards.

Indiana’s Evan Turner, a big, versatile combo guard who does a bit of everything -- but nothing exceptionally well -- could be a more realistic, yet disappointing outcome for Exum's career. He says he watches Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker for inspiration. Hopeful talk of a Penny Hardaway-like upside would fit nicely should he end up going to Orlando with the fourth pick. It's unlikely, but Exum would love to fall to the Lakers, who can offer a much shorter flight to Australia and the opportunity to learn alongside Kobe Bryant. 

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It all comes back to the fact that nobody has seen Exum play enough. His camp went to lengths to hide him, keeping him out of 5-on-5 scenarios and from working out directly against any of his peers -- although as the draft neared, they began to loosen the reins in private workouts for lottery teams, allowing for 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 competition. While Exum was shooting jumpers in Southern California this winter, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were quarterbacking their teams on national television. The secrecy has kept Exum’s stock steady at the top of the draft, but also raises concerns that his people have been hiding him for a reason.

For all of Exum’s ability, both physical and mental adjustments await. He turns 19 in July and will need to add muscle to face grown men on a nightly basis, not to mention the NBA's grueling travel schedule. Regardless of what position he plays, the ball will surely be in his hands early on in a league with a faster pace than anything he's ever seen. Whether or not his star continues to rise depends largely on how fast he adapts.

"I remember everybody was concerned about if Kevin Durant was going to be physically strong enough to play in the NBA,” says Stacker. “That’s what people are saying about Dante, and I think the situation is similar – his quickness counters his lack of strength. He’s going to get stronger and develop. Every time he’s been put in a situation where he’s needed to rise, he’s done it.”

As polarizing as Exum is, as dominant or as disappointing he could become, one thing seems certain: Whichever team takes the leap of faith with him can ill-afford to miss.