Dante Exum is the next big name in line on my series documenting the likely stars of the 2014 NBA Draft. As with before, comments, criticism, and disagreements are very much welcome. Everybody sees players differently (see: Hasheem Thabeet, Andre Drummond, Shabazz Muhammad), and it always interesting to get other opinions.
BACKGROUND: Dante Exum is a 6'6", 188 lbs Australian-born PG who will turn 19 in July of 2014. He is the son of a former North Carolina Tarheel (one that was primarily on the bench during the time Michael Jordan was there) that proved to be a solid contributor playing in an Australian basketball league. He decided to live there and raise Dante Exum, who has since dominated in Australia as well as in FIBA and other national competitions. He has just recently (January of 2014) visited with 6 different colleges in case he decides to go that route instead, but reports are that he will likely enter the 2014 NBA draft with a chance of being one of the top picks.
- Size and Length. Exum has excellent size for a PG. He is 6'6" and has a 6'9" wingspan and is generally much taller than opposing PG's. He is almost identical to Michael Carter-Williams in size and build.
- Excellent Athlete. Exum is a tremendous athlete, with his greatest physical gift being his quickness. He has a lightning-quick first step that is Westbrook-like, allowing him to blow by defenders easily. Exum also has great lateral quickness and speed in general, which can create a big match-up problem considering how tall he is for his position. His leaping ability is also a huge advantage for him. He explodes off the ground to get up high and can seemingly float in the air, allowing him to make mid-air adjustments. Staying in front of him will be a challenge, even for NBA-level defenders.
- Penetrating. Thanks to his incredible quickness, Exum's offense primarily revolves around penetrating the lane. Few can stay in front of him, allowing him to get straight to the basket very often. When defenders are there, Exum is not afraid to absorb the contact, and will either go through, around, or over the opponent to score. He will also often dish it back out to an open shooter upon driving inside, as he does not put on blinders and attack 100% of the time.
- High Basketball IQ. One reason for Exum's success is his great understanding of the game. He is a very smart player (especially for an 18 year old) who moves well off the ball, sees the floor, knows when to attack and when to slow it down, and has a great feel for the game in general. He has also been said to be a good leader and locker-room guy, thus using his IQ in an even more positive way.
- Scoring/Being the Go-To Guy. With his teams needing him to do the majority of the scoring, Exum has both succeeded in doing so as well as been willing to do so. He has often carried his teams from start to finish and has no problem being the focal point of the offense. He generally scores in three ways: Driving to the bucket (his go-to method), posting-up (mostly against Australian competition, so we shall see if he continues to do so against bigger and better opponents), and occasionally pulling up for a long two or three pointer (perhaps with one or two dribbles, but not much beyond that). Exum is excellent at using screens as well as blowing by defenders 1-on-1, as few have been able to stay in front of him. He has the ability to be a great scorer and has shown that he can do so against elite competition. Exum is also fantastic on fast-breaks, with few having even a chance to stay with his explosive quickness.
- Good Passer. As mentioned in the "High Basketball IQ" section, Exum has good court vision. He is a willing passer who will make the extra pass to the teammate that has a better shot, and can make passes that will amaze. Passing, however, is not his first option. He is a scorer first and a passer second, but as mentioned, he is always willing to make the pass. Exum was forced to be the main scorer for the majority of his life, but he may adapt once he is surrounded by more talented players.
- Versatility. Exum's size and abilities make him a very versatile player in the back court. While he has traditionally played the PG position, his natural ability to penetrate and score as well as height have many thinking that he could play time at SG, as well. His length and quickness also allow him to defend both the PG and SG positions well.
- Good Defender. Exum has shown both the ability and willingness to be a great on-ball defender. He pressures opposing guards well and has the quickness to stay in front of them. He is not afraid to get into his man and absorb contact, showing a feisty nature. As mentioned in "Versatility," his size and length make it easy for him to guard both the PG and SG position, although his length certainly gives PG's more trouble than SG's.
- Good Rebounder. As a taller and longer player, it is expected that he would be at least a solid rebounder, and he has shown that he can do so. He has shown the willingness to go after rebounds on both the offensive and defensive side and is not afraid to get inside with the bigger guys. For a PG, his rebounding ability is excellent, and it is still good for a SG.
- Shooting. Exum's most obvious weakness is his ability to shoot the ball. His mechanics are very inconsistent, sometimes varying widely from shot to shot. He shoots the ball flatly, almost like a line-drive at times, and will occasionally attempt shots going down rather than on the way up. Like most players, he has had games where he shows promise, and he has been improving, albeit not by a huge amount. Shooting off-the-dribble has not been good at all for him, giving real concern in the event that a team clogs the lane and shuts down his penetration. He has been okay in catch-and-shoot situations, however. Exum's jump shot will need a lot of work if he hopes to be a great player, as even Westbrook cannot consistently blow by everyone and get to the hoop despite his incredible quickness.
- Strength. While Exum's speed will allow him to succeed on both the offensive side and the defensive side of the ball, his strength may hinder some of that advantage. At 6'6", Exum is only 188 lbs; that would make him nearly the same weight as Isaiah Thomas (185 lbs) and lighter than Jimmer Fredette (195 lbs). One bright spot about his weight, however, comes from Michael Carter-Williams. MCW, who has an almost identical body to Exum (6'6" and 185 lbs) has not shown that he has had trouble defending anyone or getting to the rack against anyone. Both are very wiry players who are identical in more ways than one, giving hope that his strength should not be a huge issue. Whether that turns out to be true or not, however, is anyone's guess.
- Can he Play PG in the NBA? Exum undoubtedly has the IQ and instincts to play the PG position, but the question is whether or not he can work on understanding the position and truly be a floor general. As mentioned earlier, Exum is a natural scorer, not a passer. While he is not a selfish player and is willing to make the extra pass, that is not usually his first plan. Scoring point guards are becoming the norm in the NBA, however (see: Westbrook, Curry, Williams, Parker, Irving, etc.), but many of those scoring point guards have also greatly picked up their assists average as time has gone on (also see: Isaiah Thomas). That being said, Exum does struggle at times to get the offense initiated, and seems to wait for the offense to get going rather than leading the offense and keeping everyone moving. His assist numbers have just been okay (with limited statistics available, he has averaged about 4 or so assists per contest), but again, today's scoring PG's have all improved over time. Some say that he is better suited for the SG position, but most agree that he will do his best as a PG. One big factor in his style of play: He has been asked to be the main scorer on the majority of his teams. If he needs to score to get his team the victory, it is natural that he will look more ball-dominant. How he translates in the NBA, where the talent level is obviously superior than what he is used to, will be very interesting.
- Playing Under Control. As an 18 year old PG, it is expected that there will be mistakes made. Exum is certainly no exception. He has shown times where he will be a little wild with his decision making and shot selection, forcing plays that just simply aren't there. As a result, he has been turnover-prone in his young career, which is again not too surprising. There's always the worry that he will have more moments of erratic play, but as with most PG's, he will likely learn the position with time and continue to make strides in his game. With a fantastic basketball IQ, this should not be too much of a concern down the road.
OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Dante Exum looks to continue the trend of athletic, offensive-minded PG's in the NBA. He is an athletic marvel, with quickness that few in the world can match. He has a high basketball IQ and is excellent at penetrating, creating offense in a variety of ways once he reaches the paint. Exum is still young, however, and thus still learning about the PG position. He has not had the opportunity to lead a talented team continuously (as he primarily plays in Australia), so watching how he meshes with far more talented teammates will be something to keep an eye on. One comparison I (and others) see as almost dead-on is Michael Carter-Williams. Some of the similarities are almost uncanny: Both are 6'6" and about 185 lbs, both are wiry and athletic, both were questioned greatly about their shot, both are good rebounders, both have a high IQ, and both are at their best when penetrating and on the fast-break. Carter-Williams was the more polished and more natural passer, but Exum is the more athletic, and thus, has a higher ceiling (since he has the same, if not better, natural abilities). Many have mentioned Penny Hardaway as a good comparison, but since I never had the opportunity to see him play in his prime, I cannot say how accurate of a comparison that is. Exum's shot will certainly need work, but he is already a smart and very athletic player. If he can continue to master the PG position and get at least a semi-reliable shot added to his repertoire, the future looks very bright for him.
VIDEO: (Unfortunately, there are not a ton of Exum highlights, but these are some decent ones)
Exum vs. Team USA at the Nike Hoop Summit. Against the likes of Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, and others, Exum displays his lightning-quick first-step and overall athleticism, his driving ability, and his ability to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers. These highlights show the scorer in Exum and how he can do so against elite competition.
Exum vs. Spain in the U-19 World Championships. Against okay competition, Exum displayed his great driving ability, what his shooting ability could look like if he figured out how to do so on a consistent basis, solid floor vision, and solid defense.