Dante Exum, generally regarded as a top-five prospect in the upcoming NBA draft, has been hanging out at Los Angeles Lakers games recently with his agent, Rob Pelinka. There’s a mutual crush between the team and the Australian wonder kid, but who needs who more?
For 18-year-old Exum, it’s a case of schoolboy infatuation. As related by Jon Tuxworth for The Canberra Times, the young guard signed with his agent due to a matter of access:
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. I haven't chatted to him yet, but the agent said Kobe knows who I am and he said he'd definitely have a chat to me.
Since making that statement, Exum moved to Los Angeles, where he’s working out in preparation for the draft. And not only has he attended multiple Lakers games, he has also been seen lingering outside the locker room. One presumes that includes at least a meet-and-greet with the Mamba.
There’s an interesting historical parallel at play here.
Eighteen years ago, another bright young hope had a thing for the Lakers. The New Jersey Nets, however, were standing in the way of the kid from Lower Merion.
As Ian O’Connor for ESPN New York writes, a series of maneuvers and schemes culminated with phone calls by Bryant and his agent, Arn Tellem, to Nets coach John Calipari and GM John Nash: “Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.”
The rest is history—the precocious high school star was drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats, who had reached an agreement with Jerry West for a Vlade Divac-for-Bryant swap.
Flash forward to present day, and some are wondering if history could repeat itself. According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, at least one unnamed general manager thinks so:
When you hear some of what he says, it does make you wonder how the process is going to go as far as workouts and that sort of thing. We have seen this story before, of course. I am not sure a player can have that kind of control, though.
It doesn’t have to go so far as threats about whether a player will or will not sign—the matter of accessibility can be a major influence. Exum hasn’t had much exposure in the U.S. outside of the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit, and as of yet, he has not been available for workouts with other teams.
Pelinka can simply keep his client under wraps, which would then put the onus on those picking before the Lakers, to either draft Exum blind or move on to another prospect.
Then again, it's not like teams don't have international scouting reports and plenty of video to watch.
So who needs who more in this lovefest—the Lakers or the Aussie sensation? For Los Angeles, it simply needs someone, anyone, who will be a difference-maker as it moves into the most important rebuild since signing Bryant all those years ago.
It’s really all about where the Lakers fall in the draft order once the lottery balls pop and settle. After losing to the Dallas Mavericks Friday night, the Lakers remain with the sixth-worst record in the league.
There’s also the matter of who’s actually in the draft come June 26—rumors continue to circulate, according to a report by ESPN via Chad Ford (h/t Matt Moore of CBSSports.com), about Jabari Parker considering a return to Duke for his sophomore year, which could throw the order into chaos and propel Exum up the chart.
With only three players under guaranteed contract next season, the Lakers have needs at each and every position. While finding their point guard of the future would be nice, it’s not necessarily more important than securing an athletic center like Joel Embiid.
And, if Exum is gone by the time the Lakers are on the clock, a double-double beast like power forward Julius Randle or Blake Griffin clone Aaron Gordon wouldn't be a bad consolation prize—especially considering the dearth of quality free-agent big men at present.
In fact, the Lakers look to be losing more frontcourt talent than they can gain over the summer, with Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill all set to exit stage left as unrestricted free agents who have been less than enthused with their roles in Mike D’Antoni’s system.
Ultimately, Exum and the Purple and Gold are in a courtship, but it doesn’t mean the affair will be consummated. And regardless of the wishes of a draft prospect or his representation, there’s nothing to prevent another team from pulling the trigger if it gets there first.
With the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz each having bleaker records than the Lakers for now, Exum could wind up trudging through the snow next winter instead of enjoying beaches and palm trees in the warm California sun.
In other words, it’s probably more important to the kid from Down Under to hook his star to the Lakers’ wagon. After all, the only thing worse than being on a losing team is to be on a losing team in subzero weather and possibly watching from the bench during your rookie season.