Lost amid a sea of reporters deep enough to cover a scandalized presidential candidate, the biggest show at the 2014 NBA predraft combine held his own. He smiled and answered questions with his head high, exuding the type of confidence that helps make him a guaranteed top-five selection.
But this wasn't Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid. They skipped out on Chicago entirely, a chest-flexing maneuver that will do little to alter their status as the draft's three best players.
No, the man amid the throng of khaki-trousered men with iPhone recorders was Australian point guard Dante Exum, largely considered the fourth of a potential Big Four. ESPN's Chad Ford lists Exum as the No. 4 prospect on his big board, a sentiment I have publicly agreed with.
Exum is also the most tantalizing prospect in this entire class.
The product of the Australian Institute of Sport, an outfit that also produced 2005 No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut, Exum burst into the national conversation at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit. Flashing elite first-step quickness and top-shelf athleticism to go with his 6'6" frame, the camp was abuzz with this largely unheralded kid taking everyone to the basket.
(It's worth noting that Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, as per usual, was all over Exum way back in 2012.)
Exum initially decided to attend college, only to backtrack, instead going back to Australia to finish his secondary education before moving to the United States to work out full time for the NBA draft.
"It's crazy to think last year I wasn't even on these mock drafts or anything like that and I was looking to get recruited by colleges," Exum told reporters. "To be in this moment is just amazing."
"Amazing" might be the operative word considering how little we know about the 18-year-old. Since coming to the States, Exum has been sequestered—few public interviews, fewer public workouts and only the air of mystery wafting over salivating NBA executives.
The unknowingness left him with a Tiger-Woods-on-Sunday-at-Augusta-sized gallery all week in Chicago. Scouts bush danced when Exum measured a legitimate 6'6" and ran a 10.75-second time in the lateral agility drill—second best behind only UCLA's Zach LaVine. Exum also impressed in the shuttle run and sprints with top-10 times.
If there was any disappointment, it came from Exum's less-than-ideal 34.5" vertical jump and his decision not to participate in shooting drills. But as a 6'6" point guard with nearly a 6'10" wingspan, the frowning was kept to a bare minimum. Exum impressed team executives in interviews, thinking quickly on his feet to handle questions designed to trip him up.
"I will say, it's funny—today one of the teams asked me, 'Besides marijuana, which drugs do you use?'" Exum told Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe. "And I'm like, 'Umm, none, I don't use drugs.' That was the weirdest one."
The human brain is naturally attracted to novelty. There is even a part of the brain, the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area, designed specifically for us to process and react to things we have not seen before. As Belle Beth Cooper of Lifehacker points out, novel stimuli automatically pique a curiosity not ascribed to everyday items.
This is why, when meeting a new person, you're inherently more interested in things he or she is saying. Or why, when Bob your next door neighbor pulls in with his new car, you are filled with a sudden urge to go outside and "take the garbage out."
Once the novelty wears off, the curiosity dissipates. No conversation has ever begun with, "So, old car, eh?"
Think how many conversations with your spouse, your friend or your boss have come and gone without you remembering a single word of what was said. The human brain's ability to normalize so is one of its most astounding and best qualities. No one wants to be stimulated all the time.
Naturally, these concepts apply to sports.
Never more so than in draft processes. Evaluators have a saying for upperclassmen—that we "know" them. This is not an admission of personal relationships, but an easy way to dismissively say they are in some way less important than other players. There is enough existing tape available and we've seen them in enough high-profile situations that it is less urgent (and less interesting) to go back and rewatch.
Andrew Wiggins' tape gets devoured. Adreian Payne is on the list below our second Wiggins helping. One is the exciting ball of untapped potential—the "what if" exceeding the "what is." The other is a David West clone for a new generation, his development seeded over four years of college—the "what if" is the "what is."
Exum is catnip to our novelty sensors.
He is Wiggins if only Wiggins had never been seen by 98 percent of American audiences. Nearly every media member and team executive was getting his first Exum experience—both as a player and as a person.
Unlike most of his non-American counterparts, he did not spend his formative years playing in second-tier professional leagues in his home country. He is not an Adriatic League MVP who has been on radars for years now like Dario Saric, the Croatian forward considered by most the second-best international prospect in this class.
Scouting services such as Synergy Sports, which has hours worth of data and video for essentially every American college prospect and international pro, does not have a single file on Exum. Keep in mind that Synergy is one of a couple of scouting services used by the NBA.
Teams have sent scouts overseas to watch him play and have been tracking his every move since his breakout last season. But, in today's NBA, he is a unicorn—an unsolvable riddle whose word of mouth carries as much weight as his tape. He is like a Rubik's Cube after someone chisels off a sticker on each side and then glues it on another.
"I can't look at one player and say that's who I play like," Exum told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy at the combine (via Sulia), "but I can see different traits that players have that I see: I look at Russell Westbrook as that explosive point guard that can get to the rim, and also Manu Ginoboli [sic] when he gets into the paint and the way he can finish."
Taller than his contemporaries and lacking beyond base muscle tone, Exum's best body-type comparison is Michael Carter-Williams. The insane first step and lateral quickness give you flashes of Russell Westbrook. The obvious inconsistency of his jumper—apparent after an even three-minute YouTube session—makes you wonder how quickly this kid can crack an NBA lineup.
And that's precisely the problem.
Our collective predilection toward the novel is dangerous in a draft with so many sure things.
The Orlando Magic need a long-term answer at point guard. Could they actually pass on the likes of Noah Vonleh, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon—three guys with NBA skill sets and distinct college resumes—to take a chance on Exum? Hell, we have two years' worth of tape on Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart bursting to the hole against Big 12 point guards and playing pit bull defense.
That Exum not only could but also is favored to go over these guys speaks to his immense potential. It also speaks to that part of our brain that champions new over old, shiny over rustic, unpredictable over reliable.
Is any of this a good thing? I have no idea. And that's the beauty (and the nightmare) of Dante Exum.
All combine measurements and results are via the NBA.
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