Australian basketball has received a much-needed shot in the arm over the last 12 months.
And just wait and see what’s coming next.
Former top overall draft pick Andrew Bogut has returned to full health and is again playing solid two-way basketball for the surging Golden State Warriors. Patty Mills has emerged from chief towel waver for the San Antonio Spurs to knockdown 3-point gunner. And undrafted rookie guard Matthew Dellavedova has worked his way into the rotation for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It is also worth mentioning that All-Star Kyrie Irving holds dual citizenship in the United States and Australia and returns to my home city of Melbourne in the offseason to promote the game and host camps. Things are definitely looking up for starved Aussie hoops fans. And the best may be yet to come.
Enter Dante Exum.
Just 18, Exum is a 6-6 guard with a 6-9 wingspan and incredible physical tools. The son of NCAA championship winner Cecil Exum of North Carolina, Dante Exum is a breathtaking and graceful athlete whom many NBA experts believe will forgo college and declare for the 2014 NBA draft in June.
“I would be shocked if he doesn’t enter the draft,” one agent who recently met with Exum’s family told Yahoo! Sports. “He knows he’s a lottery pick, and knows several teams have him very high on their boards.”
Pardon? A lottery pick? An 18-year-old from Australia? That’s what many NBA fans are asking right now because little is known about this rangy kid from the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.
Exum, who plays primarily as a point guard, made the All Tournament Team at both the FIBA Under 17 World Championships in 2012 and Under 19 World Championships in 2013. He led Australia to fourth place overall in 2013, averaging 18.2 points on 44 percent shooting with 3.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and almost 2 steals per game.
Exum remains very raw in many aspects and is no doubt unproven against consistent high levels of competition. However, he is a tantalizing prospect that all teams in the lottery will be looking at closely. Here is a breakdown of his strengths and weaknesses.
Size, length and athleticism. Exum can finish at or above the rim with ease, rebound effectively at both ends of the floor and possesses a high defensive ceiling due to his incredible length. He is able disrupt passing lanes and block shots on smaller guards.
Unbelievably gifted in transition. Exum seems to just glide across the floor. It is almost as if he is ice skating with a basketball in his hands as he slithers his way to the cup for layups or for drop-down passes to a trailing big man.
Getting to the basket. Exum has a very tight, low handle and a deadly crossover. He also has the two-speed hesitation move that Grizzlies guard Mike Conley uses so effectively to blow by opponents and glide to the rim. He can draw fouls at will, finish from almost any angle in and around the paint and go upstairs and throw it down when necessary.
Feel for the game. Exum makes things look very easy on the court. He is an effortless mover, has terrific body control, smooth creativity and can even take a page out of Andre Miller’s book by facilitating and scoring from the high or low post.
Shooting. Although improved, Exum’s shooting mechanics still need work; he has struggled to consistently make shots from the perimeter. He also is a below average off-the-dribble shooter. with his size and length, Exum looks a little bit like Russell Westbrook when he pulls up at the elbow, but has yet to make that shot on a consistent basis. That makes him almost primarily a driver and slasher at this stage.
Size. Exum has well-documented, outstanding length. However, he will need to continue to add muscle and grow into his body if he is going to be able to mix it up with the NBA’s stockier, stronger guards.
Not quite ready to pilot an offense. If Exum is to play the point or be the primary ballhandler, there are a few small kinks in his game that he will need to iron out. He is a capable passer but not yet a brilliant one. He is very willing to share the ball with teammates but can be prone to committing turnovers. This is in part because at times he looks to be unsure of whether he should be shooting or passing. As his decision-making ability improves, so will his assist numbers and offensive efficiency. As far as pure point guards go, Exum is still a work in progress. With that said, try and tell Westbrook that you can’t succeed by learning on the fly.
1. Despite his considerable size, can Exum be the primary ballhandler in an NBA offense? And if he can’t, can he improve his jump shot enough to allow him to play off the ball at times?
2. How will Exum handle the harsh transition to the NBA considering he often plays against sub-standard opponents in Australia?
3. Finally – and maybe most importantly: How will he handle the limelight, the fame and the expectations? For a prospect touted as a lottery pick, Exum has escaped most of the media hype and maintained anonymity while preparing for the NBA some 8,000 miles away. American college and high school stars become used to the spotlight, scrutiny and constant media attention. At the moment, Exum is lucky to get a small square of print coverage in any of the large sports newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne.
“There is a lot of pressure on him, but he is very grounded and he is keeping it all in his stride,” Jason Denley, Exum’s coach at Canberra, told The Age. “Dante could be thinking about that next stage, which is a massive stage, yet he has still shown the willingness to come and compete for his school at the Australian School Championships.
Exum has the tools, work ethic and attitude to forge a long and distinguished NBA career. In addition, he possesses the potential and ceiling to be the best Australian to play in the NBA. That’s how good this kid can be.
However, the risk of taking Exum with the fourth or fifth pick may be larger than selecting an American college star. It remains to be seen whether teams in the high lottery looking to rebuild quickly would be willing to roll the dice on the Australian sensation, which may mean Exum slide into the 6-8 range.
I believe Exum will declare for the 2014 NBA draft and be selected with the sixth pick.
Jake Henson is a fledgling NBA writer from Australia who has followed Dante Exums’s progress very closely over the past 18 months. In 2014, Jake plans to move to the United States to follow his dream of being a regular NBA columnist.