Australia's Dante Exum and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart are two young guards who are expected to evolve into NBA floor generals.
To get either one of these guys in the 2014 draft, you're probably going to need a top-six pick.
Exum blew up NBA radars with two monster showings at the FIBA World Championships, where he led Australia to a silver medal in 2012 and a bronze in 2013. He was also a standout at last April's Nike Hoop Summit against guys like Duke's Jabari Parker and Kentucky's Julius Randle.
Smart is now in the midst of his second season with the Cowboys, after he chose to return as a sophomore despite hearing top-three buzz last June. The Big 12 Player of the Year as a freshman, Smart entered 2013-14 as USA Today's Preseason National Player of the Year.
There's really not much to dislike about either of these two prospects. The teams that land them on draft day will likely both come out winners.
But this Exum kid, though.
If Smart is considered a prize in this draft, then I'd consider Exum a treasure. The potential reward attached to him is just on a whole 'nother level.
And despite the risk naturally associated with international talent, there really isn't much with Exum, given the physical tools he has to match his tremendously potent skill set.
Exum, like Smart, has been perceived as a point guard early on. But realistically, these aren't two traditional point guards. They're scoring playmakers who offer the basketball IQ, passing instincts and leadership presence to run a team's offense without a personal agenda.
As point guards, they're both mismatches, which really powers their upsides as NBA prospects. Take a look at how they stack up physically:
Just imagine how dangerous Exum can be as a 6'6" point guard. Same goes for Smart at 6'4", 220 pounds.
But is that Smart's true NBA position? Basketball scribes and voices continue referring to him as a point guard, which seems fair, considering it's a role he often plays for Oklahoma State.
However, Smart owned a negative-1.74 pure point rating (measured assists to turnovers relative to each other) last year, and he currently sports a .95 PPR this season (4.4 assists to 2.6 turnovers a game), via DraftExpress. In comparison, Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, who's our top-ranked point guard not named Exum or Smart, is No. 6 in the country with a 6.54 PPR among players who've played at least 20 minutes.
Smart's .95 PPR ranks outside the top 150.
He's just not your typical breakdown point guard. Smart is a power guard—he relies heavily on overwhelming defenders with strength as opposed to quickness.
And it's not that he can't handle the ball, but you just don't see that slick change-of-direction ability shared by the most elusive point guards in the pros.
On the other hand, Exum is silky smooth off the bounce. East, west, north, south—he's like a joystick out there.
Not to knock Smart as an athlete, but Exum is simply quicker, more explosive and lighter on his feet.
His first step is off the charts, and with the size and length to play over any guard, either 1s or 2s, playmaking just comes more naturally.
Both of these prospects are extremely bright, and that plays to their appeal. But Smart has to rely a little bit more on his instincts, while Exum's incredibly advantageous physical tools provide an extra source for playmaking.
Smart's assists typically come within the flow of the offense. Exum's come after he blows by his man and triggers the collapse, which helps create four-on-three situations and open shots for teammates.
He doesn't need a specific play to be run to land in playmaking position. Exum's elusiveness off the dribble allows him to break down defenses at any time of a possession.
Still, both of these guys will need to work on their decision-making and shot selection as NBA-level point guards. Like Smart, Exum's scoring arsenal is still ahead of his feel as a facilitator, although it's tough to be too critical when he's consistently the No. 1 offensive option in Australia.
So what about Exum and Smart as 2-guards? Based on Exum's numbers in international play and Smart's numbers in Division I, you'd think that shooting guard was actually their natural position.
|FG Percentage||Points||Rebounds||Assists||3PT Percentage|
|Exum, 2013 FIBA||.446||18.2||3.6||3.8||.333|
But there's no doubt in my mind that Exum's scoring repertoire and tools are better suited to translate than Smart's.
For starters, at 6'4", Smart just won't present that same mismatch as the 6'6" Exum, who's got him beat in size, athleticism and bounce.
And quite frankly, there are questions to ask regarding Smart's scoring skill set.
He's not much of a one-on-one scorer. Down one to Iowa State on the final possession, take a look at the shot Smart gets off after getting the ball in isolation:
Smart really doesn't have the mid-range game that carries so many NBA-scoring 2-guards . According to Hoop-Math, only 19.3 percent of his shots come on two-point jumpers, where he's shooting just 28.8 percent.
Ironically, he takes the most shots from downtown, the area where he shoots the worst at 28.2 percent. And he wasn't much better last year, when he shot 29 percent from three.
He's effective around the basket, (shoots 64.4 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math), but without a go-to mid-range game, along with limited shooting range, like I said before, there are questions that still need answers.
My concern with Marcus Smart. No middle game, no floaters, shoots a hard ball. It's 3's or all the way to rim for him. Must change as pro— Jimmy Dykes (@JimmyDykesLive) February 4, 2014
It's tough to accurately break down Exum's perimeter game, given the small sample sizes of action and the mediocre competition he's faced in Australia.
He's certainly no angel on the outside, though. He hit 33 percent of his three-pointers in the 2013 FIBA World Championships, and shooting consistency will no doubt be atop his must-improve list moving forward.
But with an extra few inches of height and a high release, Exum should be able to consistently get off clean looks. And despite the erratic shooting numbers he's put up, he still sports a confident stroke:
Neither are proficient shooters at this point, but with Exum's ability to elevate and separate with ease, and Smart's poor numbers through 55 college games over a season-and-a-half, I've got my money on the Australian developing into the more threatening perimeter scorer.
Exum is also a guy who can pick up easy buckets without having to work extra hard. He plays high above the rim, where he's a terrific finisher around or over traffic.
Without the same lift or hops, it seems like Smart has to frequently plow through interior defenders, as opposed to effortlessly float over them. And though he's as tough as nails around the basket, Smart doesn't have that extra burst that converts tough angles below the rim into easy buckets from up above it.
Take a look at Smart running the fast break below. Instead of hitting the gap and exploding up at the rim, a feature he just doesn't necessarily have the same access to as Exum, Smart's natural instinct is to make a play as a passer, resulting in poorly timed lob and an unforced turnover on a four-on-two break:
Though I'm just speculating, this would seem like an automatic bucket (or at least a trip to the line) for Exum, who has the springs and rocket power to launch himself above traffic.
via Paul Boehl
Defensively, they both project as human blankets. Exum should be able to guard a wider variety of players, and Smart has the tools to overwhelm with strength, intensity and activity.
But the fact is, between Exum's size, world-class athleticism, ball-handling skills and offensive firepower, he offers more backcourt versatility than Smart, who's been inefficient at times running the point, while lacking the perimeter game of a typical shooting guard.
Who ya got?
At the end of the day, you can probably throw Smart in at any position and he'll find a way to hold his own. But there's just no way he'll be able to present teams with the same caliber mismatch that Exum can present at both spots in the backcourt.
"He has got instincts for the game that belie his age," former coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told Bleacher Report regarding Exum's pro outlook. "While I don't want to compare him to Michael Jordan—that's totally unfair, we are talking about maybe the greatest player to ever play the game—at the same age he has got the body type and some of the instincts that Michael possessed."
There's no doubt that Smart is going to be a strong pick for whichever team lands him in the draft. I just wouldn't reach up and try to steal him.
However, I would reach for Exum, who has the physical tools and skill set to dominate at multiple positions, which ultimately gives him a wider margin for error and a higher NBA ceiling.