Can Kobe Bryant Pay It Forward with Dante Exum?

David MurphyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2014

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 20: Dante Exum #7 on the World Select Team drives against the USA Junior Select Team during the game on April 20, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 (Photo by Sam Forencich)
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Heading into his final two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant may have an opportunity to close out the chapter in an unexpected way—by mentoring Australian sensation Dante Exum.

There’s a major hurdle to cross first on June 26, as the NBA holds its annual draft night. Exum, an 18-year-old combo guard, hired agents Rob Pelinka and Brandon Rosenthal of Landmark Sports Agency in January and then declared for the 2014 draft.

If Pelinka’s name rings a bell, it may be due to the fact that he happens to represent Bryant as well.

The NBA superstar has been mostly sidelined this season by a fractured knee. The injury came just six games after returning from Achilles surgery. Without Bryant, the Lakers have been in a free fall and now have one of the worst records in the league.

They also happen to have a first-round draft pick this year.

One of the fiercest competitors the sport has ever known, Bryant is no stranger to being helped along the way, and in turn, helping others. He has referred to Jerry West as "my mentor friend” and has become increasingly involved in guiding new generations of Laker guards, including current teammates Jodie Meeks and Nick Young.

Per Jon Tuxworth of The Canberra Times, Exum recently spoke about the man he believes could help shape him: "A reason why I signed with the agent I'm with is he has Kobe Bryant, and he's been through this when he came into the NBA. I guess having him as a mentor who can guide me through what he did, and how he became successful, is something which is pretty good."

Exum is multi-positional, but Pelinka is marketing him as a point guard for the upcoming draft. The Aussie phenom stands 6’6” with a 6’9.25” wingspan and has blow-by speed in transition.

Add a high basketball IQ, excellent handles, an explosive first step and plenty of vertical lift, and you’ve got the potential for the type of point guard that the Lakers haven’t had on their roster in a long time.

Management still has to find a way to snag this kid. It won’t be easy—Exum’s draft stock has been soaring in recent months.

At the same time, however, the Purple and Gold have been heading into prime lottery territory. Their record currently stands at 18-34—just a half-game out of last place in the Western Conference, and fifth from the bottom for the entire league.

Of course, there are still 30 games to go in the 2013-14 season.

Where is Exum likely to be drafted? It’s hard to say for sure. Apart from some international tournaments and the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit, he hasn’t had the same exposure to team executives as his current draft counterparts. 

There have also been questions about his NBA readiness. Regardless, this hyper-athletic scoring machine is rapidly gaining draft-storm strength.

As of this writing, the DraftExpress mock draft has Exum being taken by the Utah Jazz at No. 5, with the Lakers drafting in eighth place.

HoopsHype sees Exum being nabbed by the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 6, with the Lakers not getting up to bat until the ninth slot.

Chad Ford’s ESPN 2014 lottery mock draft however, estimates the Lakers’ chance of getting the coveted top lottery pick at 8.8 percent—the fifth best chance. Ford has Exum as his No. 4 choice.

One thing is for certain—the Lakers are a lot closer to the top of the draft now than they were earlier in the season. The lottery will be held on May 20.

There are some interesting parallels between the current face of the Lakers franchise and the young player who could become their next big star.

Bryant was the first guard in NBA history to be drafted straight out of high school. His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was an NBA player who moved the family to Europe in order to play in the Italian League. Also, it’s no secret that young Kobe was influenced by Michael Jordan.

Exum has also elected to forgo college for professional basketball. His father, Cecil, played with Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina before moving overseas to play pro ball in Australia. And, Dante, a highly confident young basketball talent, thinks Bryant can help show him the way.

Just as generations differ, so can they come together.

Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling, who has interviewed Exum on multiple occasions, recently reported on the emerging star’s decision-making process:

If I get the opportunity to go to L.A. and play for the Lakers, I know I’ll have love for the city. And their fans are loyal and they have the rivalry with the Clippers. But just to be in an environment where you have a great player like Kobe, where you have a mentor in a way as a rookie, I think that would be the best option.

Zwerling adds that Exum has grown up watching Bryant, and has some ideas about what he could learn in person:

I just want to know his work ethic, what he’s done to be where he is at the moment, because he’s definitely in the talk of one of the greatest of all time. So I want to just pick his brain, what he’s done, how he’s adapted over the years and still been able to average over 20 points in the league.

Imagine the on-court lessons—Bryant’s signature moves, like his footwork, jab step, pump fake and pivot. And then there’s the mental game. You can try to emulate the man’s reverse layup or his fade away jumper, but how many can duplicate the legendary ferocity and relentless determination to win?

Dante Exum wants to learn from the master.

Bryant came into the league as an intensely driven loner, a young talent who thought he knew it all. He’s learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. He’s been criticized for his arrogance and hero-ball tendencies but is also a devoted student of the game and an advocate of “the process.” This is someone uniquely positioned to cast a lasting imprint upon the next Laker legend.

There’s still draft night to contend with, of course. We don’t know what Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak will do when it comes their turn to pick or if Exum will still be on the board.

Is there anything that could dissuade other interested teams? Exum’s representatives will be scheduling team workouts, and you can bet they’ll be careful and choosy. Non-preferred destinations are less likely to receive access.

The 18-year-old will be leaving Australia to train in Los Angeles in mid-February—that’s where Pelinka is based, of course. And if all the ducks just happen to line up perfectly, then what?

Bryant has never made a secret of his desire for a sixth championship ring. There are other ways to burnish his legacy, however, such as helping his team to transition to a new era—an era that will no longer include him in body, but could carry on his spirit.

And if two generations that seem so closely combined can win a championship together? That would be the best of both worlds.

Come draft night, Lakers fans may be hoping for an Australian miracle. Bryant, meanwhile, may be hoping for a chance to pay his legacy forward.