Everything Danté Exum needs to prove his case is right there on his phone’s screen, and like a trial lawyer -- as much a 6-foot-6, 18-year-old, Australian point guard can be a trial lawyer — he makes his case to the small circle of people around him.
Exum's agent, Rob Pelinka, the jury must conclude, has just unfairly declared himself the victor in a recent game of table shuffleboard, robbing his client, an expected top-five pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday, of glory rightfully his.
Pelinka, whose clients also include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Andre Iguodala, isn’t about to give in. Instead, Pelinka, himself a former baller at the University of Michigan, suggests solving one competitive dispute through additional competition.
Game on, Exum says.
Tennis? Exum believes he’ll take him, even after being told Pelinka has easy, daily access to a court.
“Doesn’t mean he’s good,” Exum says.
Pool, darts, and putt-putt golf all find their way onto the program of this fast-forming quasi-Olympiad. Exum floats Call of Duty, and is shot down. (Can’t blame a guy for trying to put the game on his home turf.) Pelinka suggests bowling. Exum says he’s not very good at it but agrees nonetheless. Bowling is in.
“I’ll just rise to the occasion,” he says.
The 2014 NBA Draft is dominated by names many basketball fans have been hearing for at least a year: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, (until recently) Joel Embiid, Julius Randle. Nobody, though, has generated buzz in quite the same way as Exum. Because his high school experience came in Australia, and he never played college ball in the U.S., there isn’t a massive library of game footage on Exum for fans and hoops execs to break down.
It gives Exum an International Man of Mystery appeal that's only enhanced by his measurable gifts, both physical (a massive 6-foot-10 wingspan) and athletic (a 3.19 three-quarter court sprint time at the NBA Combine -- better than Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard).
“I realized being projected so high, people want to know who I am. I understand why people want to know, and want to find game tapes and stuff, but I guess it is what it is,” Exum says. “There are game tapes of me out there, but they might be a little harder to find.”
Even while understanding that he’s a lesser-known quantity stateside (and how that drives the imagination of fans), Exum chafes at the idea that he’s some exotic creature coming soon to an NBA arena near you. Yes, he consumed the league differently than the average American kid — more YouTube, less ESPN and TNT— but Australia isn’t exactly Jupiter.
But where the “Man of Mystery” narrative prompts merely a tired eye roll, Exum pushes back harder at the suggestion that he hasn’t proven himself against the best competition. Exum averaged over 18 points and almost four assists in the 2013 FIBA under-19 World Championships, leading Australia to a surprising fourth-place finish. Among the participants were fellow lottery hopefuls, Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart, along with Croatian sensation Dario Saric, also expected to be a high first-round pick.
Exum has spent plenty of time in the U.S., as well. Multiple summers, it turns out. Playing against Parker, Randle, Gordon, and Noah Vonleh (also rising fast in mock drafts) at last year’s Nike Hoops Summit, Exum scored 16 points in only 22 minutes. The year before, he stood out at the prestigious Adidas Nations against similarly high-end opponents.
“There’s no doubt that I have played against really good players,” Exum says.
And played well. Scouts rave about his ability to get into the paint off the dribble and in transition, his quickness, length, and character, along with a lofty basketball IQ. These aren’t the traits of a novelty act.
Technically speaking, Exum is a middle child. He has a brother two years older, and a twin sister who is a whopping 18 minutes younger. “Everything was like a little competition between Danté and his sister,” his mother, Desiree, says. “Who walked first? Who lost the first tooth?” Competitions she typically won, but “‘(Danté) wasn’t far after.”
Exum’s father, Cecil, played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina, where he was teammates with James Worthy and Michael Jordan; then enjoyed a successful pro career in Australia. Still, when it came to fueling his love of basketball, Danté’s primary influence wasn’t his father, but his brother.
“We had a little basketball court in the backyard, and I would always be out there trying to beat him,” Exum says, “and when I didn’t I would always come into the house crying to my mom and dad. They’d just say, 'You’ll beat him one day. Don’t worry, Danté, you’ll beat him one day.' So I just kind of stuck to it. I think always just wanting to win against him pushed me.”
Around age 15, the fight grew more even. Eventually, Danté took a game, then another, and then more. “I just kill him, now,” he says with a smile.
He has always been tall, but the ball skills Exum developed in those backyard games against his brother made him too valuable just to plant under the basket. But it wasn’t just his handle or jumper allowing Exum to thrive as a point guard. He was encouraged by his parents to lead. Off the court, it meant roles on student council. On it, it was about taking responsibility for the fate of a game.
“Being able to lead the floor and control (the game). Having that control of the tempo and realizing how you can change a game with the play style, and what you need to do to beat the other teams,” he says. “That’s definitely the most fun part about point guard.”
Some believe his true position in the NBA will be shooting guard, not point guard. Exum disagrees. Those people, just like the ones saying he hasn’t faced quality competition, are judging the book by its cover.
“The only thing that people look at me and put me at the two is because I’m tall. I’ve played point for so many years now that it’s just become my natural position, so the only thing that’s different about to me to a natural point guard is my height,” he says.
If the hyper-kinetic, scenery-chewing energy of Russell Westbrook occupies one end of the Point Guard Aura Scale, Exum appears to live at the other. “I think he is very level-headed. He’s a thinker, he’s proactive, not a reactive type person. He has goals, and he sets his eyes on achieving them,” Desiree says. But his calm can’t mask an intensely competitive nature. Sometimes it manifests itself in cellphone photos of retro bar games, and accusing his agent of cheating. Happily for NBA teams, it’s no less apparent watching Exum attack his basketball workouts.
“He loves it. I give him credit,” says Rob McClanaghan, who trains elite talents, including Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Westbrook, and Candace Parker. “Coming out so early, I didn’t know how hard he could go, or for how long. If he could do it. I never met the kid until three months ago or so, but I’m very impressed. Not only does he show up every day, it’s one thing to show up, but he actually goes 100 percent every time. So I’m extremely impressed by that.”
One of Exum’s most long-standing goals has been to make it to the NBA. By the end of June, he’ll have accomplished it. From there, he can move on to others. To make an All-Star team. To win a title. To grow the popularity of basketball in Australia, and help increase the level of play there. It’s a long, difficult list, and with so many unknowns in front of him it’s impossible for Exum to know the exact route to accomplishing them.
Ultimately, though, he knows how he’ll get there.
He’ll just rise to the occasion.