Over the past several months, the NBA world has become increasingly intrigued and excited about the potential of Australian prodigy Dante Exum.
The interest is absolutely warranted.
An impressive set of skills, elite athleticism and length has propelled him toward the top of the 2014 draft boards. He dominated his high school competition in 2013, but more importantly, the 18-year-old showcased tremendous playmaking throughout international play.
It's easy to understand why a speedy, 6'6" combo guard would be an attractive NBA prospect, but we want to delve into what precisely makes him such a sought-after prize.
Why exactly is Dante Exum top-five material?
Explosiveness and Agility
To stand out as an NBA scorer and also defend the best guards in the league, it helps to have foot speed, leaping ability and body control.
Exum has all of that, and then some.
In half-court scenarios, his first step is deceivingly quick, and in open-court opportunities, his swift, long strides enable him to cruise past challengers. Peter Bukowski of Sports Illustrated warned that "his first step is absolutely lethal."
It's one thing to post great numbers during the athleticism testing at the combine, and it's quite another to be truly explosive with the ball in your hands. When Exum finds a window of daylight, he can burst past his man and elevate over help defenders.
In the following sequence from the FIBA U-19 World Championship tourney, he exhibits his quickness, leaping ability and agility all in one play. Watch him leave two Lithuanians in the dust:
While I don't think he's a carbon copy of Russell Westbrook, plays like those help to explain the comparisons. Exum has the kind of bolt-and-bounce gifts that will dismantle the average NBA athlete.
Size: More Than Just Height
At 6'6", Exum stands well above the average point guard, and he's plenty big enough to operate on the wing as a shooting guard.
From a size and frame standpoint, he's quite similar to Philadelphia 76ers rookie Michael Carter-Williams. MCW is also 6'6" with a slender build and long wingspan.
However, Exum's wingspan is 6'9.25", which is a full two inches longer than Carter-Williams' 6'7.25" reach.
That's something to keep in mind, especially when you watch how easily MCW can extend to score and pass over and around challengers. Having a long wingspan equips these youngsters to make sensational plays on both ends of the floor, including rebounding well for their position.
Being a talented athlete doesn't do you much good if you aren't aggressive. But NBA teams don't have to worry about that with Exum.
From day one, he'll be on a mission to put opponents on their heels. His first priority as a playmaker is to get into the paint and find his team the best possible shot, whether it's his own or a teammate's.
In half-court offense, he surveys the defense, looking for angles to drive to the bucket. When it doesn't lead to a layup, it usually ends with him drawing multiple helpers and dishing to the open man.
In transition, Exum can serve as a one-man fast break even when opposing defenses are seemingly in position to deter an attack.
Against Spain, he took the ball coast-to-coast off a turnover, aggressively pursuing the hoop and creating the opportunity for an old-fashioned three-point play:
Exum is nowhere near being a fully-polished NBA guard. When it comes to offensive talent, he's just getting started.
That's scary, considering how good he already is.
We've already established that he's got a great first step and can bolt to the rim, but what makes him such a dangerous scoring weapon?
For starters, he's got a great handle. Exum is brilliant at changing pace and changing direction, whether it's a hesitation dribble, in-and-out fake or crossover. Combine those moves with his speed, and you've got a recipe for some embarrassed defenders. He's going to be a constant threat in pick-and-roll sequences.
Once he gets near the rim, he finishes the job by scoring deftly with either hand, with the ability to maneuver in the air around obstacles.
Even though Exum's jump-shooting results were inconsistent last summer and autumn, he's quickly developing a mid-range and perimeter arsenal. Exum uses terrific, quick footwork to set up his shots. Those moves include post-up turnarounds, step-backs and lightning-quick dribble pull-ups.
His scoring instincts surface even when he doesn't have the ball. Sometimes it's a quick backdoor cut, and other times he slides into space on the perimeter for a catch-and-shoot chance.
Exum's NBA coach will be ecstatic over the variety of ways he can utilize him.
In addition to his ability to put points on the board, Exum has the wherewithal to be a high-caliber NBA point guard.
He knows how to use his penetration skills to set up his teammates, as he possesses superb awareness and court vision. On the break and in traffic, he can draw and dish with the best playmakers in this draft class.
While watching film of his 33-point outburst against Spain, I noticed that he could have registered much more than four assists. If it weren't for teammates' botched layups and wide-open misses, he would have had eight or nine dimes to go along with all those points.
Sometimes he forces the issue when he drives or passes, but like any other young point guard, that's something he'll undoubtedly clean up over time.
NBA scouts must love his knack for hitting cutters and open shooters. Exum doled out a smorgasbord of assists during the Australian Schools Championships title game:
Defensive Tools and Potential
While Exum's draft stock is largely driven by his outstanding offensive prowess, it's greatly enhanced by his defensive potential.
With the aforementioned 6'9" wingspan and magnificent lateral quickness, he will eventually learn to guard three positions in the NBA. If he applies himself, he can lock down both guard spots and tame many small forwards.
Most backcourt players aren't able to contest shots if they're focused on moving laterally to stay in front of their man. Exum should be able to complete both tasks on every possession.
The tools are exciting, but what's equally encouraging is his willingness, awareness and effort to defend.
Mentality and personality are important to consider, especially this high in the draft.
Fortunately for Exum's suitors, he's got the makeup to be a successful NBA professional. He displays a healthy confidence and is a well-spoken young man. There's no doubt he will be an infectiously positive leader throughout his career.
During his behind-the-scenes trip to Australia, B/R's Jared Zwerling noted Exum's charisma and humility:
...Even with all of the exposure—one arena in the tournament pulled out its entire section of seats just for his games—Dante wasn't cocky and looked comfortable interacting with and talking to fans of all ages who stopped him in his tracks. It's a marketable quality you can expect to go a long way once he reaches the NBA.
Exum's father, Cecil, who played with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, told Zwerling about his son's passion to become great:
"He’s a very focused individual," Cecil said. "He challenges himself constantly. He looks at criticism and turns it into a positive, and works on what people think his shortcomings are."
Exum's maturity will serve him well as a high-IQ leader on the court and a level-headed presence off it. This only fortifies his draft value, as if it wasn't rock-solid to begin with.
I don't pretend to believe he's the perfect prospect, or that he has no weaknesses. He's young, and he'll go through some growing pains.
But it takes a lot of pessimism to be down on this phenom. He's got the dual-threat playmaking skills to be a star combo guard, along with the intangibles and maturity well beyond an 18-year-old.
All signs point up for the kid from Down Under.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR
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