How true that Foot Locker catchphrase must feel to Dante Exum right now.
Since Adam Silver called his name as the 5th pick in this year’s Draft, the so-called international man of mystery has been under the microscope.
With limited opportunities to scout him and pick apart his game leading up to the draft, Exum is now facing that scrutiny in a big way. Only it has gone too far.
Exum is just 19 years old.
While he stands 6’6”, he weighs in at just 190lbs, so his body still has plenty of maturing to do.
And so does his game.
Exum is a pass-first combo guard who sees the floor extremely well and has the skill-set to be a very effective pro. He just doesn’t know how to harness that talent yet. Given the small sample size with which scouts and analysts have to work, they have been overly critical of what they’ve seen so far.
It started in the Summer League in Vegas where Exum said G’day to the NBA by catching an alley-oop pass from new Utah Jazz teammate Trey Burke for his first points.
From there, it got a little harder. Exum showed flashes of his quickness and court vision but struggled to be consistently effective against stronger and more athletic competition.
His conditioning also let him down and it was clear that he has more work to do in that area before reporting to training camp in late September.
In the end, Exum averaged an underwhelming 7.2 points on 30.8 FG%, shot 16.7% from downtown (3-18), added 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, but managed only 14 total assists (2.8apg) versus 15 turnovers.
However, what was also obvious, especially from his final game where he started as the PG, was that a) his poise and ability to run a team was well ahead of his age and b) he is clearly more comfortable with the ball in his hands than playing off the ball.
Some were optimistic about his future.
Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune tweeted: “Exum making great reads off the pick and roll……best thing about this game so far”.
A special assistant with the Jazz during Summer League, Canadian coach Roy Rana who coached Exum at the Nike Hoop Summit said: “I think there’s nothing but strides in this week. I don’t think you can judge it based on a performance on a given day. He’s getting a first experience. He’s getting a chance to play a lot of different guys. He’s getting a chance to experience some success. He’s having a chance to experience some tough times and just the grind that the NBA (is) on a daily basis — the practice, the video (sessions). It’s a great growth experience.”
And possibly most relevant was the opinion of new Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder. “I think Dante is what we thought he was — he’s young,” Snyder said after Exum’s 1-for-8 shooting night in a loss to the Spurs.
“He’s got work to do,” Snyder added. “But he’s a kid with a great deal of pride and a will to compete and improve.”
Dante’s next stop after Summer League was to join the Australian Boomers in preparation for the FIBA World Cup. The Aussie basketball public was excited about the prospect of adding a newly minted NBA lottery pick to the roster. Would he start? Would he play point guard or shooting guard? Would he help them contend for a medal? Again, there were a lot of expectations placed on the skinny shoulders of a kid who was playing for Lake Ginninderra only 9 months ago.
Those expectations were tempered by his teammates.
“We don’t need Dante to come out and score 30 points for us to win, we’ve got a good team who just needs everyone to contribute,” Boomers veteran Joe Ingles told The Age.
“He works hard and understands what we are trying to do here …. Dante has unbelievable talent but it’s going to take time for him to get used to it because he is not an old professional, he is just getting used to that pro stuff,” Ingles added.
Despite starting the opening warm-up games, Exum’s role began to change as the tournament drew closer. Eventually trumped by talented shooting guard Ryan Broekhoff, Exum would be the first guard off the bench when the World Cup tipped off.
However, through the group stage the talented youngster managed only 13 minutes per game and contributed just 3.2 points, 2.4 assists and 1.4 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7% from the field and 25% from deep.
Most of that production came in the game against Angola where, with the starters being rested, Exum had his best game of the tournament with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists.
The truth is, Exum has looked tentative more often than not. He is lacking in confidence and is still figuring out how and where he can be most effective. Others think he’s looked totally out of his depth.On a recent podcast with Zach Lowe, Grantland chief Bill Simmons said: “I think Utah fans were worried after Summer League. Now it’s like real concern. Now it’s just a lot of fear.”
“I guess Australia just doesn’t think he’s ready to play,” Lowe added. “I mean, they’re not playing him very much, sometimes not at all.”
Exum has received more criticism this week due to a quote that surfaced from an un-named Eastern Conference scouting director who was asked what have we learned about Exum since he was drafted.
“Not much,” said the scouting director, according to Sean Deveny of sportingnews.com. “He’s not ready for the NBA, that is for sure. But a lot of guys are not ready for the NBA and they have got to learn on the fly. He is no different. But he is not going to jump into the league and all of a sudden average 20 points a game. There’s just no way.”
Along with the comments from Simmons, this quote made headlines during the week as people believed that Exum was already being written off; being labelled a potential bust before ever setting foot on an NBA court.
However the quote was taken somewhat out of context as the rest of it, quite flattering, was ignored by most.
“He is really, really good in the pick-and-roll,” the scouting director said. “He knows how to take the pick and emerge with his head up and he sees the whole floor. He will get better with his decision-making as time goes on and he gets experience, but that ability to come off the pick like that, you know being able to see and process everything immediately with your head up; that is something you can’t teach.”
In the Angola game, playing predominantly point guard, Exum showed the penetration, speed and passing ability that many wish he would utilise more often. He attacked the paint, found open teammates and clearly felt more comfortable with the ball in his hands and with chances to create shots for others.
“From what I have seen, the guy is a 1 all the way,” the scouting director continued. “You can try putting him at the 2, but his shot is just not something you fear right now — he needs to adjust his mechanics and he needs more confidence in it. If he plays a lot of 2-guard, I would hope it does not hurt his confidence and set him back a little. That’s not his game right now.”
Dante Exum was the 5th player chosen in the NBA draft. He did not play a single game of NCAA basketball. He did not test himself against his peers before having his name called out back in June. And while those peers were being scrutinised and having their games picked apart from November - April, Exum was working out in a quiet gym with a trainer.
Now, two months after the draft, Exum is going through a similar experience, but in a much more condensed time frame and against much stiffer competition.
He is also playing on a team with high hopes of leaving Spain with a medal. If the Boomers were purely there to develop their young talent and gain experience ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016, then Exum would be playing a much larger role (and Ben Simmons would be on the roster). However Coach Andrej Lemanis is out to win now (for the most part) and clearly trusts the likes of Adam Gibson and Ryan Broekhoff – players with NCAA and professional experience – more than Exum.
When he does get some court time, Exum is facing NBA level talent on most nights and each opponent is gunning for him now that he’s become a lottery pick.
Make no mistake about it; Exum is under fire at the World Cup. There are plenty of seasoned professionals playing in Europe, South America or Asia who would love to have a shot at the NBA and many are out to prove that Exum’s was gifted to him, possibly undeserving.
Life sure does change after the draft.
What is clear from the small sample size is that while the talent is there, the confidence is not … yet. But nor has the opportunity been there to play a consistent role and develop that confidence.
I’m reserving judgment for when the time is appropriate. That time may not be for another two to three years, when he’ll be all of 21 or 22 years old.
Utah Jazz fans were excited when his name was called and still should be.
It is way too soon to write Dante Exum off, so cut the kid some slack and give him the time he deserves to grow and develop.
After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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