http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/oct/28/time-for-talk-is-over-as-utah-jazzs-dante-exum-embarks-on-debut-nba-seasonAccording to the advertisements, life changes after the National Basketball Association draft. Yet for Australian rookie Dante Exum, one thing remains the same.
Of Russia, Winston Churchill once proclaimed “it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”; the statement could equally apply to this 19-year-old from Melbourne. Four months after being picked at number five in the 2014 NBA draft, with Summer League, FIBA World Cup and pre-season performances in between, Exum is still the ‘international man of mystery’.
Despite being one of the most exciting prospects in the NBA, Exum will be thrown into the deep end when he makes his regular season debut this week. Regardless of the point guard’s impressive physical attributes, his lack of experience cannot be ignored: this time last year he was playing against fellow school kids as he prepared for Year 12 exams. In less than a fortnight, however, Exum will suit up to face superstars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love when the Jazz face Cleveland. The four million dollar question: will he sink or swim?
Rewind a few months, and Exum looks slightly jaded.
Standing in the Australian Institute of Sport’s cavernous basketball gym, the 19-year-old appears somewhat burdened by the weight of expectations on his shoulders. From dedicated Utah supporters to the Australian basketball establishment, fans across the globe had their eyes on Exum hoping to witness him blossom at the World Cup and beyond.
“The press attention has been crazy – from interview to interview to interview,” Exum jokes while discussing his post-draft experiences. “Other than that, getting on the court and seeing the physicality and speed of the game has been interesting. It’s just about adjusting as quickly as possible.”
Predicted to go as high as number three in one of the most talent-filled NBA drafts in years, Exum remained calm when the fourth pick came and went.
“I knew going into the night that Utah were going to take me if I got to five, and right before Orlando [Magic] got their pick they told us they weren’t going to go with me,” he explains. “I knew that I was a mystery and could drop anywhere. But I’ve talked to the Jazz coach [Quin Snyder] and he’s told me about his system and how he’s going to use me – I think I’ve been put into a great situation.”
While many aspects of life may have changed since that night in June – he’s now getting fan mail rather than electricity bills – something else will remain the same for the foreseeable future: “All the Boomers guys still treat me like a rookie!”
While their jovial treatment of Exum might not have changed since he made his international debut 14 months ago, his teammates are ecstatic at the guard’s rapid progression. Exum shares these sentiments, and takes a moment to reflect when asked about his rapid rise. “To think about it, last year I was looking at going to college, so to see how far I’ve come is amazing.”
The next stage of Exum’s rise to basketball stardom began in Las Vegas, where he exhibited both glimpses of talent and an inauspicious .308 field goal percentage during the NBA Summer League. Despite impressing with some ominous slams and remarkable assists, an average of 7.2 points per game suggested the Jazz player was not quite ready for the main game.
“Summer League was a good experience,” Exum says. “It was tough getting back on the court because I hadn’t played for a while, but I thought I adjusted pretty well.”
Although few doubt Exum’s potential, he is evidently still some way from NBA all-star status. His pre-season performances have been frustratingly inconsistent: conceding eight turnovers against the Clippers, only to collect 13 points and six assists three days later, while he also struggled to assert himself for the Boomers in Spain. Following one recent disappointing showing, controversial ESPN analyst Bill Simmons proclaimed pointedly: “I like having good basketball players in the league. I’m very worried about Dante Exum.”
Yet the guard is blessed with fantastic physical ability, deft passing and basketball intelligence well beyond his years – if he can handle the pressure, that number five draft position may in time represent a steal. Only a week later, the same expert described Exum as a teenage Kobe Bryant with “an Australian accent.”
While Simmons may have pulled off the fastest about-turn of his career, speak to those who have worked with Exum previously and the verdict is unanimous: he has what it takes. While the point guard’s former AIS basketball coach is quick to concede that his pupil still needs to improve, he predicts a bright future for the Jazz’s new addition.
“Exum is a superior athlete,” Paul Goriss says. “He is one of the best to come through the men’s program in my 10 years there. His length and athleticism as a point guard is a combination that really sets him apart. At the same time, he knows his deficiencies and where he needs to get better. Everyone forgets that he’s only 19 – he still has a lot to learn and a way to go, but I think over time he will prove the doubters wrong.”
If Goriss’s prediction is accurate and Exum fulfils his lofty potential, the ‘mystery man’ moniker will rapidly disappear. The road to the top may be paved with pitfalls, but it takes pressure to make a diamond, and Exum could be shining in the rough.