Australia's Dante Exum is a $10m risk worth taking for Utah Jazz
In November last year, Dante Exum was just like any other schoolboy. Sitting his exams at Lake Ginninderra College in Canberra, the bright lights of the would have seemed a distant dream.
Yet while his classmates no doubt enjoyed their summer breaks before starting work, university or opting for a gap year, Exum did not join them on any exotic holiday escapades. Instead, the 18-year-old had only one destination on his mind – basketball’s home, the United States of America.
After extended conjecture over whether Exum would nominate for the draft or head to a US college, he chose the former, sparking months of speculation about the guard that reached its crescendo with the .
He may be headline news now, but rewind to 2011 and few would have heard of Exum’s outstanding athletic abilities. He already had one notable admirer though, and that fan was not afraid to make a bold prediction about the youngster.
Exum was only 15, but then-Boomers coach Brett Brown immediately , saying “He is highly skilled and he will represent Australia one day.” The youngest player invited to a training camp, Melbourne-born Exum was holding his own against vastly more experienced basketballers.
Yet while Brown’s statement may have , with Exum making his national team debut last year, even the now-Philadelphia 76ers head coach failed to foresee the guard’s full potential.
In the space of three years Exum has progressed from a promising talent to one of the most hyped young basketballers on the planet. His performances at the Under-19s World Championship in Prague caught the attention of the , while late last year a cameraman followed his .
And having now been selected at No5 in one of the most talented NBA drafts of the past decade, Exum’s profile is about to go stratospheric.
How exactly he will fit into Utah’s line-up is unclear – they already have 2013 ninth pick Trey Burke at Exum’s position, and the incumbent balloted third for rookie of the year this season. Indeed the Jazz decided against working out Exum pre-draft for that exact reason. Nevertheless, and while the forthcoming trade period may shed further light on the situation, the teenager will be confident that his versatility will grant him regular game time even alongside Burke.
With his NBA contract – worth around A$5m a year for two years – now assured, Exum is likely to play an instrumental role in the progression of basketball in Australia. Alongside Exum, Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova, the recent Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) graduate Ben Simmons will form the core of a formidable outfit looking towards the 2016 Olympics.
With high hopes from the Australian basketball establishment and constant media exposure in the NBA fishbowl, Exum will need to adapt quickly to life in the spotlight. But his former AIS coach insists that the rapid rise to stardom has not had an adverse effect.
“He hasn’t let the expectation get to him at all,” Paul Goriss commented earlier this year. “Probably not being in the USA [until recently] has helped, as I think he’s been shielded from all of that hype. His parents do a very good job of keeping his feet on the ground, and he is a well rounded kid.”
Exum is rated as one of the best young basketballers in the world because of a distinctive combination of size and skill. Standing at almost two metres, the Australian is significantly taller than many NBA point guards, yet Exum retains the necessary ball handling and passing abilities to orchestrate his team-mates. Add to that an incredible 210cm wingspan, and it is little wonder basketball scouts were drooling over his potential.
“He’s definitely a tall, strong, athletic guard,” Goriss said. “He’s super quick, either with or without the ball, and has good vision, passing and decision making. Dante has done a great job over the last couple of years improving his three-point shooting, but I know that’s still an area he should work on. And he probably just needs to put on a bit more size – he’s got a long, wiry, skinny frame, and to play in the NBA he will need more muscle.”
To address such concerns Exum has hit the gym, working with respected trainer Rob McClanaghan since February to ensure he is ready for the physical intensity of professional basketball. He even watching the NBA All-Star weekend from the stands, so as to not disrupt his work-out regimen.
Yet despite bulking up and impressing at the NBA draft combine, where teams evaluate prospects both physically and mentally, Exum still has a question mark hanging over his NBA future. He was labelled by as the “international man of mystery”, and to draft failure Serbia’s Darko Milicic, a similarly unknown player who was selected at No2 and never lived up to expectations. Such concerns may have been responsible for Exum’s slide to No5 pick, after pre-draft speculation had him alongside Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker in the top three.
While these fears may have some justification – Exum has only played against high quality opposition since 2012 – he now has a golden opportunity to dispel such doubts and become the greatest ever Australian to ply their trade in the NBA.
Utah may have taken a gamble at No5. But with a risk like Exum, the Jazz will like their chances.