Dante Exum has been dubbed this year’s international man of mystery, an Australian guard who is known to many by his online highlights and little else.
Yet NBA fans will know his name soon enough; Exum is expected by some to be a top-five pick in the June 26 draft.
The son of Cecil Exum, a reserve guard at North Carolina in the 1980s, Dante Exum grew up in Australia after his father moved there to play professionally.
Exum attended the highly regarded Australian Institute of Sport and then started traveling to compete in international tournaments, where word soon spread about his talents. But instead of opting for college, the 6-foot-6-inch Exum set his sights on the NBA.
When he attended the Chicago combine in May, the 18-year-old Exum elected only to speak to reporters, avoiding the on-court drills, which only deepened the mystery surrounding his game.
“He’s a little bit of a wild card,” said a Western Conference executive. “He definitely looked great last year at the Hoops Summit and he’s played well in international events. He’s going to be a really good player, but I don’t have the familiarity with him as a comfort level of what he can become as compared to some of the other guys.”
The biggest question about Exum is what position he’ll play in the NBA.
“He’s intriguing in that he’s kind of like the new-wave point guard, a guy that can play both guard positions,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “He’s got great size — enough to play both guard positions — speed and athleticism and ballhandling to play the point and then shooting, size, and strength to play the [shooting] guard position.
“He’s kind of the optimal point guard guy. I think that’s what’s intriguing about him.
“You’re talking about the kid who, [at] the under-19 World Championships, was the best kid in the tournament, hands down. It’s just a matter of how many people saw him there and how many people are comfortable with that to make a decision on him.
“At the Hoops Summit, he was good, but he wasn’t stellar. He was the youngest guy in the game. He’s another kid that was a year younger than everyone else. He’s a talent. I think teams might be sleeping on him as far as what he potentially could be.”
But one Eastern Conference scout said the issue of what position Exum plays is the “million-dollar question.”
“What is he going to be?” asked the scout. “Are you going to turn him into Russell Westbrook? Or is he going to be Thabo Sefolosha?”
Another Eastern Conference scout said Exum might have to play point guard even if it’s not the best position for him.
“As a point guard, I like him, but I don’t know if he’s a natural point guard,” the scout said. “I think that you kind of have to play him there — this is only based off me seeing him at Nike Hoops Summit last year — but the thing about him when he wasn’t playing point, because he was paired up with Dennis Schroder, was Exum had no clue how to cut or move without the ball. He just literally stood in the corner.
“I think he always has to have the ball in his hands to be effective.”
A Western Conference scout recalled watching Exum face Schroder, a German point guard who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks last year.
“Let me tell you, Dennis Schroder kicked the [expletive] out of him in every one-on-one drill,” the scout said. “It was sad, because here was this young, gangly kid, and Schroder was tying him into knots.”
The Western Conference scout called Exum a “very good prospect” but stopped short of saying he was anything more.
“Again, is he not a tremendous prospect? I’m not going to say that,” the scout said. “Is he a potential All-Star? I don’t know. Is he someone who if I was drafting, and I haven’t seen him play other than a one-on-zero workout, would I consider drafting him top five? No [expletive] way.
“I saw him play every conceivable level of basketball. He’s not a point guard. Just because you can dribble in a straight line and dunk doesn’t make you a point guard.”
Exum hasn’t been playing on a competitive team since leading Lake Ginninderra Secondary College to the Australian National High School Basketball Championships title in January.
Before that, he competed in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships, where he averaged 18.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists.
“The thing that brings me a little bit of concern is the level of competition that he’s played against,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “He played against our young guys, USA guys last year, and he looked good. But playing in Australia . . . I just mean, the everyday competition against guys that are as quick, as fast, as good? He hasn’t done that.”
An Eastern Conference scout said that Exum comes from the “same cloth as all the Australian players that have played in the NBA — he has a grit, toughness, nasty. Has a ton of pride. Wears the Australian flag strong.”
But another Eastern Conference executive who watched Exum compete overseas said Exum reminded him of an Argentine player, San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili.
“Just like Manu is extremely left-hand dominant, Dante is extremely right-hand dominant,” the executive said. “He really has no left hand right now. That will have to come as he gets older and stronger and just better as a player. That was kind of a name that came to mind.
“I think it’s kind of an interesting type of player. I don’t think Manu gets enough credit for as good of a 2-guard as he actually is. If you can find another one of him, I think that’s a pretty good get.
“I think Exum has that ability to where he could be a slasher but a good enough shooter to draw defenses out and then have the ability to drive and create out of that, because like Manu, he’s an incredible passer for being a big player.”
More than with any other lottery-caliber players, there are questions about Exum’s game, if only because of where he’s from.
“He’s long, athletic, he knows how to play,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “I think his biggest thing will be getting stronger and shooting. I think he’s athletic, but it’s interesting, because he covered [Andrew] Wiggins a couple times at that [Hoops Summit] event, and he did OK.
“And it’s like, ‘OK, this guy can cover Wiggins.’ But then there are plays, and it’s like, as athletic as Exum is, he’s not an elite athlete. Wiggins can do this to a lot of people, but there was a very large difference between the two when it came to the level of athleticism.
Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.