Dante Exum Isn’t The Enigma Most People Claim He Is

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Everyone in the NBA world seems to be asking about Dante Exum right now.

I’ve seen the reports calling him an “international man of mystery,” and while I see the fun in such a title, there is plenty of information out there about Dante Exum if teams and members of the media are willing to pick up the phone.

In the past few months I’ve heard from a bunch of respected basketball people here in Australia who have been taking calls from NBA GMs and scouts about Exum, some have even had a few quiet questions about Ben Simmons, who is still a few years from NBA eligibility.

But I wanted to give readers my thoughts on Exum from my time dealing with him as an Australian journalist.

He has to get stronger, has to improve his jump shot and will take time to adapt to playing 82 games – you could say that about everyone in the draft.

But mentally, psychologically I have no doubt he is ready to be a pro and will make whoever drafts him better.

I’ve only chatted with Exum a couple of times and same with his dad, Cecil Exum, who is a highly respected person within basketball in Victoria, my home state.

Each time I’ve walked away (or hung up the phone) believing Exum has a good head on his shoulders, a great family behind him and a strong heart in his chest.

The Exum story is a good one and one which would not be foreign to families through the western world.

His dad came out to Australia after a successful college career with North Carolina.

He was a respectable, hard-working import who took care of his teammates and generally did the right thing in all circumstances.

As such he kept getting contracts and made a good career in the Australian NBL.

Along the way he did what several US imports at that time did, he decided to make his life in Australia and as such went on to work in Victoria, coach and play in our state league competitions while he and his wife, Desiree, raised their kids, one of which is Dante.

Talk about Dante’s talents only started a few years back when he made our under-17 national team, previously he had played at junior level for Victoria and looked a promising talent.

About that time the Australian national team, known as the Boomers, were coached by a bloke named Brett Brown, you will now know him as coach of Philadelphia 76ers.

Brown knew how good Dante could be so he promoted him to the Boomers training camp, even though he still hadn’t turned 16.

Once in the national team set-up and playing against international talent, people both here and overseas realised just how good he could be.

The first time I spoke with Dante he was at a camp for the Australian under-19 side which was in Europe and about to head to the world championships.

At the time he was projected to be a possible NBA draft pick but his future plans were completely unknown, as such there was almost no media coverage of him in Australia.

When we spoke the team had recently found out one of their best shooters, a guy named Mirko Djeric, was going to miss the tournament as he had been shot in the leg at a house party in Sydney.

When I asked Dante about it he spoke like a seasoned veteran, saying how much their friend would be missed and that the team would be playing for him.

That seems like a response anyone could make but several months later I was in Sydney for the Australian league (known as NBL) preseason tournament where Djeric was playing with Townsville Crocs.

During the Crocs first game, I noticed Exum and two of his Australian under-19 teammates quietly walk into the stadium.

At half time those same boys went and greeted Djeric’s very nervous family who were watching his first serious game since returning from the shooting.

His family had been riding each of Djeric’s shots, each time he hit the floor or took a foul.

But when those boys came over to them they all exchanged hugs and kisses like long-lost family – turning up at that game said more about Exum and his teammates than any conversation could tell you.

I spoke to him a few months later after ESPN’s Chad Ford listed him third in his 100 players list.

Exum was training with the Boomers and loving the chance to battle NBA guards Patty Mills and Matt Dellavedova and European veterans like Joe Ingles and Brad Newley.

He seemed more excited about being in the national team setup than anything else.

At this time talk was building that he would definitely be heading to the NBA but Exum made it clear he was torn both ways between having the college experience his dad had at North Carolina or fast-tracking his career to the NBA.

His biggest learning curve was facing the physical strength of playing against men like Mills and Dellavedova – but from all accounts I received Dante more than held his own.

When ESPN reported in January that Exum would enter the draft, suddenly every person with a camera or microphone went looking for Dante.

He was in Canberra, training at the Australian Institute of Sport, so was quite hard to find.

I sent him a couple of texts asking if he had a few minutes to talk, I didn’t hear anything from him all day until just before 4pm when he called me back saying he was more than happy to talk and was held up training.

This time he made it clear he had noted the extra analysis US college stars like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins had faced during their freshman seasons – he knew it was time for him to go pro.

In the past year I have talked to lots of people who have worked closely with Exum, so often the conversation begins with “don’t report this but Dante did this”.

I won’t break those confidences but each time they told me stories of him going the extra mile for a teammate, telling volunteers or officials he appreciated their work and similar gestures.

Dante has been a heart-beat away from the NBA for over a year now but hasn’t let it change his values – if that isn’t the best possible indication of his ability to handle the NBA, then I don’t know what is.

About the Author

Roy Ward Roy Ward is a basketball writer from Melbourne, Australia. He covers men’s and women’s basketball and rugby league for The Age newspaper and Fairfax Media. Roy is a huge Boston Celtics fan but loves seeing his fellow Australians playing in the NBA. Send any feedback to him via twitter at @rpjward.