Behind Dante Exum's Decision to Enter the NBA, and What's Next for Aussie Phenom

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 3, 2014

Sam Forenich/Getty Images

These days, Dante Exum can enjoy working out at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), the country's top training ground for amateur athletes, without many distractions. That's because activities don't pick up at the Olympic-style campus—where he's been since he was 15—for another couple of weeks when school resumes.

But something around Exum, who declared for the 2014 NBA draft this past week, keeps buzzing.

"My phone has been blowing up, man," he told Bleacher Report. "(The local media) wants to do a lot of feature stories. It's going to get crazy. I'm pretty excited. I'm just ready to get over (to the U.S.) and get started. It really hasn't sunk in yet that I'm a professional."

Fueling that decision, which Exum hinted to me in December when I visited with him for a week in Australia, was a feeling that he could be "developed the best" in the NBA and being part of this year's prestigious draft class, featuring Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.

"That is definitely a positive thing, like people saying it’s going to be one of the best drafts," he said. "To have the opportunity to be a part of that is like a dream come true."

Exum also knows he can risk getting injured in college, which is especially not a gamble you want to take when you can be a potential top-five pick. That's why eight of the biggest NBA agents flew to Australia to meet with Exum from Christmas to early January.

Exum ended up choosing Rob Pelinka, whose main client is Kobe Bryant—one of the Aussie's two favorite players (the other is Derrick Rose). Bryant's high school-to-NBA journey, his global popularity and endorsements (like Turkish Airlines) and the worldly personality of the Los Angeles Lakers All-Star—he lived in Italy when he was younger—were all captivating to the international basketball phenom. Back in early December, he talked about the Bryant effect.

"I’ve been watching Kobe since I was a boy," he said. "Even Kobe was a player that went straight from high school to the league, so I’ve definitely been watching his documentaries and stuff, seeing why he chose to go straight there and he adapted. So I have, in a way, been trying to look up to Kobe. He said that it was always his dream to play in the NBA, so that made his choice kind of easy."

Pelinka, who also reps James Harden, Carlos Boozer, Eric Gordon and Andre Iguodala, shared what made Exum compelling as his first big international client.

"We feel the timing of Dante’s choice to enter the NBA draft really creates somewhat of a perfect storm," he said. "With Adam Silver taking the reins of the league and pioneering a further expansion of the game of basketball around the globe, in comes a player like Dante who has incredible point guard leadership skills, explosive athleticism, extremely high character and a genuine international cultural story. That creates a significant amount of excitement to be a part of his evolving career and brand."

Being around Exum during his final official days at AIS in Canberra and then the country's high school basketball championships in Melbourne, I observed many of those same attributes that Pelinka referenced—and more.

Exum being interviewed by a local sports reporter after one of his games.
Exum being interviewed by a local sports reporter after one of his games.Jared Zwerling

On the court, one of the biggest things that caught my attention was Exum's vocal demand for the ball after he missed a shot or when his team was entering a last-shot situation. He never got too down on himself or became too passive with the ball, maintaining a high motor and feeling like it was his responsibility to set the tempo—a true point guard with qualities beyond his 18 years. That leadership translated to huddles, where he was communicative with his coach and teammates while discussing strategy.

Talent-wise, I didn't get to see the entire Exum package because he was dealing with some minor right knee tendonitis during the tournament. But he was still putting up stat lines of 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, while shooting 7-of-14 from three-point range. And his team, Lake Ginninderra, eventually took home the crown.

While Exum's overall pace was a bit slower, you could still see his control of the game—not panicking in double-teams, keeping his dribble alive in traffic and having the court vision to make skip passes to the baseline corners for three-pointers. He's also tall (6'6") and long (6'9" wingspan) to make plays out of the post, which should give him a key advantage in the NBA.

With shooting and pick-and-roll playmaking, Exum reminds me of Michael Carter-Williams, also because of their similar body type. When he posts up, I see some of Shaun Livingston, and his drives and layup finishes remind me of the finesse of Penny Hardaway.

For more NBA player perspective, I turned to former point guard Randy Livingston while I was in Melbourne. Livingston, who runs a scouting service there helping connect local players to American coaches and college programs—he's also close to some NBA GMs and agents, including Pelinka, through his 11 years in the league—made these three comparisons while we watched one of Exum's games:

"He’s sort of a cross between John Wall, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook," he said. "He has Westbrook and Rose’s athleticism, but he’s bigger than them. He has John Wall’s long arms. Now, will he be as good as Derrick Rose? That’s up to him. I think he has the desire like Westbrook, although Westbrook has that fire, he has that killer instinct all the time. So I think that if (Exum) can tweak that and turn that on a lot more consistently, he’ll be good. It’s in him, so I think it’s just a matter of time."

Even with Exum's injury, there were certain moments—whether it was his first step, breakaway dunks or leakouts to the wings in the open court—where you could see just how good of an athlete he can be at full health. In fact, during a training session with AIS's strength and conditioning coach, Leigh Smith, Exum climbed roughly a 50-foot rope without any assistance—and he did it in about 15 seconds.

He drew so much interest during the challenging exercise that other athletes in the gym and a group of kids taking a tour of the AIS campus were cheering and clapping for him. Exum, for the record, also excels in tennis and track (his twin sister, Tierra, who is 18 minutes younger, is a star runner, and his older brother, Jamaar, is also an accomplished athlete).

The infamous rope climb inside the AIS strength and conditioning gym.
The infamous rope climb inside the AIS strength and conditioning gym.Jared Zwerling

Looking ahead to the pre-draft process, Pelinka said he will position Exum as a point guard, but the Aussie has the footwork and slashing ability to play off the ball. He can run off screens, sets his feet well quickly to the basket, has deep range and improved mechanics. In years past, Exum's AIS coach, Paul Goriss, said his shot was foo flat. That changed while they worked together on the popular Shooting Gun machine and examined split-screen analysis comparing his jumper to Ray Allen's.

"It’s a whole lot better with his release—he gets his legs into his jump," Goriss said. "Now it’s a jump shot and not a set shot, and he’s got a higher release on it. I talk to him consistently about having a strong follow-through and a wrist-snap on his shot, but it’s definitely more consistent now than when he first came in."

Exum broke down that evolution like a scout while we were going through his game highlights on my iPad during one of our several car rides together. He gets some of that detail-oriented thinking from his mother, Desiree, who works for IBM in Singapore and is a "master of analytics," one agent said.

One thing's for sure: He won't need much media training on the next level. His high basketball IQ translated to the court one day when he led, by himself, a two-hour basketball skills session for dozens of youth players who were visiting AIS. He had no assistance from his coaches—only help from one of his teammates.

He would like to continue to give back to the younger community as an NBA player, as well as expanding the game of basketball in his homeland.

"I definitely want to do something in Australia that would get the fans involved," he said. "I want to reach out over here because Australia is kind of hidden from the NBA, like definitely getting preseason games here. Just promoting the game here is something I’d want to do. Seeing other people having fun with the game, that kind of brings back the love for the game—and also not playing a lot of games and just practicing, that gets hard sometimes. So just seeing that brings joy back to me."

If that's not all, Exum has an added personality spark when he plays—one of the many reasons he has marketing potential, perhaps more so than anyone else in the draft. During one of the tournament games, there was a row of girls sitting courtside snapping photos of him with their smartphones, while gushing about him like he was a member of the teen band One Direction. One time after Exum nailed a three-pointer, he turned around and winked at them.

In another moment, after he swished a three-pointer at the end of a quarter and got fouled hitting the deck, he did a backward somersault. He told me later he did it for fun for the fans, who he enjoys interacting with, only politely turning down an autograph or photograph request when he has to rush to his next event. He almost has trouble saying no with his infectious smile and friendly demeanor.

Exum signing autographs after the biggest basketball rivalry in the country, the Melbourne Tigers vs. Sydney Kings.
Exum signing autographs after the biggest basketball rivalry in the country, the Melbourne Tigers vs. Sydney Kings.Jared Zwerling

"Beneath the public, the cool exterior, there is like a funny side to him and there is a jokester side and a prankster side to him, most definitely," Goriss said. "He’s very quick-witted with his one-liners. There’s probably a lot of people that don’t get to see that side."

As Exum continues his ascension, he's also bulking up; last year alone, he added about 17 pounds (he's around 195 now). Smith said Exum is "so unique that you kind of have to throw the textbook out the window when you look at him." Smith said to test Exum in more creative ways, he's created resistance-band pulling drills and a core workout with an ab ball that incorporates wrestling maneuvers on a floor mat.

"He's already naturally gifted athleticism-wise," Smith said. "It's more about building more resilience, making sure he can handle the workload. So when he does have to do more training and the training intensity gets higher, he can handle that without breaking down too much."

Smith working with Exum and his AIS teammate, Jack McVeigh, a Division I recruit.
Smith working with Exum and his AIS teammate, Jack McVeigh, a Division I recruit.Jared Zwerling

Areas where Exum could improve is further developing his left hand and midrange game, having more consistency with his outside shot, looking to dunk more over guys in the paint—he's used to finishing around shorter players in Australia with his speed—and becoming a more willing and physical defender. In fact, Goriss jokes with him that his name is not Dante, but "Ante" because he lacks some "D" in his game. But Exum has superior lateral quickness, and he's confident that will come around—typically a needed transition for many young players.

While Exum will be leaving Australia in mid-February to train in Los Angeles, where Pelinka is based, a big benefit is that he's already been exposed to high-level workouts at AIS. Three years ago, Exum was one of 15 youth basketball players of the roughly 200,000 in the country—according to Goriss—to receive a scholarship to go there.

Just look at its basketball history: The facility, which features a 5,200-capacity basketball arena, recovery center for pool workouts, physio lab for injury treatment and much more, has produced NBA players Luc Longley, Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. Many American youth players don't get to experience that kind of pro-level training culture.

Exum is looking forward to the opportunity to play with all of them—including currently the second-best player in Australia, Ben Simmons, who committed to LSU for next year—in the 2016 Olympics.

"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I’ve looked up to those guys for a couple years now, so being able to play with caliber players like that would just be an honor. And definitely being in the Olympic Games with all of the sport’s best competitors, it truly would be an honor."

Of course, the immediate focus is the pre-draft process, and working out in L.A. should give Exum a chance to compete against some NBA players. Perhaps Bryant? A preparation plan for Exum is underway, which is critical as he's not currently in college playing against the best crop of the draft talent.

Even youth basketball players from other cities came to Canberra to watch Exum work out with Goriss (in red).
Even youth basketball players from other cities came to Canberra to watch Exum work out with Goriss (in red).Jared Zwerling

Exum is coming from a country where basketball pales in comparison, based on competition, to sports like Aussie rules football, soccer, cricket and rugby. Exum also doesn't have that AAU and American streetball cred, but he has relevant support from his father, Cecil, who played with Michael Jordan at North Carolina. As one agent put it, Cecil is "still well-connected" with basketball insiders in the states.

"I've gone through and experienced some of the things that he’s about to experience," said Cecil, who was repped by legendary agent David Falk coming out of UNC, "so I can share those experiences with him and guide him."

But Exum will still need to prove among his peers that he belongs; there's no hype machine within league circles. Livingston admitted that some NBA teams are concerned about Exum's environment, and two agents called him an "enigma," even though he's projected to get selected high in June. That's why it's very possible that Pelinka will reduce his workouts to only a few teams with a condensed framework—limited drills with at most only one other player in the gym, so his draft stock doesn't take any sort of hit.

"I had a bunch of teams call worried that he hasn’t gotten to play enough, and they’re not going to get to see him enough," Livingston said. "But it’s like a gift and curse—he has sort of a buffer here in Australia, where he doesn’t get scrutinized as much as those (American) guys. But basically he just needs to stay healthy, keep working on his body and keep working on his game. Once he gets to that top flight of organizations—whichever NBA team he goes to—they will know what to do with him, take care of him."

So which teams could use Exum? While Livingston said "really any team because he has so much talent and so much upside," Exum has two in mind: the Lakers and Orlando Magic. With the Lakers, interestingly enough, that's his go-to squad in NBA 2K14—"You would need to play a whole lot to get on my level," he said—and that was his team's name during the tournament.

"Definitely L.A. is one option," he said. "I’ve been to L.A. many times and I love the city, and it is a great city. 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."

If Exum gets to play with Bryant, this is what he wants to learn from him: "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."

As for the Magic, he envisions helping his close friend Victor Oladipo—they met at Indiana during Exum's recruiting visit when he was contemplating college—with point guard duties.

"They’re having some point guard problems and they’re trying to get Victor Oladipo into the point guard," he said. "Also, having a good relationship with Victor, I think that would be a good fit. He could kind of mentor me a bit coming into the point guard."

Exum overlooking Melbourne, envisioning what's next for him in the NBA.
Exum overlooking Melbourne, envisioning what's next for him in the NBA.Jared Zwerling

Whatever team grabs Exum, it will have the makings of a global franchise player with his versatile skills, marketing charm and foreign background. And it won't need to do much pushing for him to reach his potential.

Following in the lineage of Cecil and his advanced basketball education at AIS, with the athletic gifts to back it up, he already knows what he needs to do—and he doesn't stop until he gets it perfectly right. That was the case one day when 30 minutes after a two-hour-long hoops workout with his AIS teammates, he still was trying to master a full-court skills challenge for the Bleacher Report cameras.

Winded and dealing with the tendonitis, he finally got the combination of moves, the dunk and shot down that he wanted after about 10 takes.

"See if you can keep up with me," he said.

The basketball world is just getting started.

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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