'It's hard to get back': How Dante Exum returned to the NBA and found success with Luka Dončić and the Mavs

Dante Exum still shoots it the same. He’s like an action figure standing there in the opposite corner, knees bent into a strong base, his motion after the catch still compact like he was barely taken out of the box back in Utah. His jumper looks nearly identical to when Exum joined the Jazz as a teenager, still raising the rock from his right hip straight up to his shoulder, cranking like a catapult until the very top of his release. And yet, something has clearly changed for Exum this season with the Dallas Mavericks.

After two winters in NBA exile, after picking the brains of Europe’s greatest shooters, Exum has returned to the league with a vengeance — most recently delivering a 4-of-4 display from deep, including a dagger triple with 37 seconds left in San Antonio on Tuesday. He’s sporting a newfound accuracy, having now drained 50% of his 80 long-range attempts on the campaign, after years rife with shooting slumps and injury woes that derailed his NBA career and left him labeled a bust.

His growth extends far beyond the arc. At 28, entering his prime, Exum is more physical with his drives, packing greater oomph into every pound of the ball, using all of that 6-foot-5 frame and 6-foot-9 wingspan that helped make him a top-five pick out of Australia one decade ago. He’s provided Dallas with another playmaker the Mavericks need behind their pair of All-Star creators in Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. He’s rebalancing the three-guard backcourt that yielded Dallas a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2022 after not factoring into the league at all.

“It’s been a whirlwind, just what I’ve went through and everything I’ve done,” Exum told Yahoo Sports.

Dallas head coach Jason Kidd has found Exum’s resurgence reminiscent of Shaun Livingston, the lanky ball-handler who joined Kidd’s 2013-14 outfit in Brooklyn, and parlayed that strong campaign into a three-year deal with the champion Golden State Warriors. Livingston was the fourth pick out of high school in 2004, a promising 19-year-old rookie, before a devastating knee and leg injury curbed his third season.

“[Exum] had setbacks with injuries," Kidd says. "Coming back and finally getting into the league. Understanding his basketball IQ is extremely high. He knows how to play the game.”

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Like Livingston, Exum entered the NBA at 19, one of the younger players in the 2014 draft, after he stopped playing live action and earned the dubious title as that class’ International Man of Mystery. He was considered such a question mark that, while Sam Hinkie’s 76ers evaluated all their options with the No. 3 pick that would ultimately become Joel Embiid, Philadelphia insisted Exum’s then-agent, Rob Pelinka, now general manager of the Lakers, pick another player for Exum to work out against one-on-one — virtually unheard of for a consensus top prospect. The two sides agreed that Exum’s opponent would be Tim Frazier, a senior guard from nearby Penn State who proceeded to cook Exum like he was bullying a helpless freshman after practice.

“That was probably one of my worst workouts,” Exum says. “That was the first time I played and did anything in the workout, not one-on-zero.”

Utah became Exum’s landing spot with that year’s fifth selection. The Jazz watched him closely at Nike’s 2013 Hoop Summit when he played alongside Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. They prioritized interviewing him at the 2014 Draft Combine, to learn just how he ticked. Utah understood Exum would mark a development project, his skinny frame so devoid of NBA-level mass, amid a rebuild that was already handing the keys to a young Gordon Hayward.

Exum would play all 82 games of that rookie campaign. “That was something I wanted to do, just to experience everything about it. Just kind of dive into it,” Exum says. Only that following summer, before the 2015-16 season even commenced, Exum felt his left knee buckle in the paint while playing for the Australian national team. It was a torn ACL that cost him his second year. He’d return to see 66 games during his third season, only to have T.J. Warren fly into his torso by accident during a preseason game that following fall, separating Exum's shoulder and leaving him in condition to see only 14 contests for his fourth trip around the league.

His frustration mounted, his body and fate failing everything he’d trained for. “I think my outlook on that has changed so much. I think it had to,” Exum says. “Just with the things I went through, how I’ve had to bounce back.” Exum had grown resigned to Utah’s coaches viewing him as more of a complementary 3-and-D player, not the potential face of the franchise who could have partnered in pick-and-rolls with Rudy Gobert. That honor quickly shifted to a shifty youngster named Donovan Mitchell. By 2019, Exum asked his representation to request a trade out of Salt Lake City. And two days later, two days before Christmas 2019, a half an hour before Utah would take the floor in Miami, Exum learned he was being held out against the Heat, that he was being dealt to Cleveland in exchange for Jordan Clarkson.

“I didn’t think it was gonna happen that fast. But I was happy, relieved, and just ready for that next chapter,” Exum says. “I needed a fresh start. I think it was just something I needed for my mental, just to get back to playing basketball.”

That opportunity would never truly come with the Cavaliers, who’d eventually ship Exum to Houston as part of the four-team, January 2021 blockbuster that delivered James Harden to Brooklyn. The Rockets waived Exum that October. He had several offers to join different teams’ G League affiliates, “but that wasn’t the path I wanted,” Exum said. Instead, he joined FC Barcelona, one of the most storied clubs of the Euroleague. “It was a way to kinda stay in the spotlight without being in the spotlight,” he says.

He found familiarity within FIBA play, the style he grew up perfecting, without the private charters and luxurious locker rooms, with the greater game-to-game competition during Europe’s shorter seasons. His passport collected so many stamps visiting so many countries, Exum now needs to renew his papers for a clean book with free spaces for new stamps. He sought shooting counsel from Alex Abrines, the former Thunder draft pick, and Kyle Kuric, the Louisville product, who compiled back-to-back 50-40-90 shooting seasons in 2021 and 2022. He watched their routines. He wondered how to break out of a slump. There was nothing mechanical to tweak.

“I think it’s just comfortability, consistency and confidence,” Exum said. “That was the one thing I’ve tried to improve. But I think a lot of times when you’re shooting and you miss one, you kinda get in your head a little bit. I try not to let that happen anymore. At what point do you become a shooter in the sense of how many am I willing to miss before I stop shooting? And I want that number to be high.”

BELGRADE, SERBIA - MARCH 28: Dante Exum (R) of Partizan in action against Alex Abrines (L) of Barcelona during the 2022-23 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 31 game between Partizan Mozzart Bet Belgrade and FC Barcelona at Stark Arena on March 28, 2023 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)
Dante Exum spent the previous two seasons in Europe, working toward an NBA return. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

Still, each game, Exum would leave the court charting his performance, feeling it slope toward an NBA comeback after strong outings or sputter toward further purgatory with each struggle. Last season, Exum opted to join Partizan in Belgrade, where legendary head coach Željko Obradović had returned after 30 years to pilot the club’s inaugural stint through Euroleague. “It was like, ‘No, I’m just focusing on winning, focusing on what I’m doing right now,’” Exum said. “If the NBA happens, that happens. And I think that helped me just kinda live in the moment.”

After Exum helped Partizan win the local ABA league, the crazed fan base flooded the floor. “But it wasn’t just random people,” Exum said. “It was fans who had been there the whole season and seen everything since game one, on the court with us, celebrating, crying. The flares going off.” Forgetting about his future made his dream a reality. The Mavericks came calling, with enough guaranteed money to leave various strong European offers behind.

“It’s always a risk. Not many people go to Europe and are able to come back,” Exum says. “It’s hard to get back.”

Exum has announced his NBA return quietly and steadily, during the downbeats of each game. If Irving arrived in Dallas to replace Jalen Brunson’s second act behind all of Dončić’s pick-and-roll wizardry, then Exum got back to the NBA stepping into the shoes filled two years prior by Spencer Dinwiddie. He’s not coming off the bench itching to microwave points each night. But Exum gets the Mavericks up the floor and playing with pace. His drive and kicks come at the right time and place, often a first battering ram that clears the way for a more critical blow. With his effective stroke, Exum knows the evolving coordinates that help space the floor for Dončić and Irving, whether holding that opposite corner or cutting off the horns sets Dallas runs with all three ball-handlers bunched at the top of the key.

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 12: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts after a basket by Dante Exum #0 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on December 12, 2023 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
When Exum shares the floor with Dončić, good things happen in Dallas. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

The lineup data is small but substantial. During games where Exum has been available, Irving and Dončić actually sport a -2.9 net rating in 511 minutes together without their Australian running mate, per When all three have shared the floor, over 100 minutes, the Mavericks sport a 124.8 offensive rating — three points above the Dončić-Irving output, higher than the league-leading Celtics — with a 112.9 defensive rating, level with a top-10 unit on the season for a Mavericks team that’s been stuck in the bottom third of the NBA on that end of the floor.

The Mavericks have closed plenty of battles with all three guards sharing the floor. Exum’s calming presence commands the trust of teammates, who know the veteran has the instincts to keep their offense afloat. He even allows Dallas to play Dončić off the ball on occasion, unlocking the Mavericks’ MVP candidate as a screener. Exum’s long strides are so purposeful as he trudges through the paint. He has nifty hooks and floaters with either hand, which he can mask so deftly whether they’re a shot attempt or a sneaky lob to one of Dallas’ deep bullpen of rolling bigs.

“The experience in Europe, for Exum to play over there and fight to get back here, has helped him a lot,” Kidd says.

“He’s fit right in with playing off Luka and Kai. He’s played at a very high level from running the show to knocking down 3s and then defensively helping us as a big guard.”

And now that he’s returned from right knee and foot injuries that sidelined Exum through much of January and February, he’s been an invaluable platoon whenever Dončić or Irving miss time. Overall, in 405 minutes together this season, Exum and Dončić are sporting a 14.4 net rating, with a monstrous 128.7 offensive rating, when Irving is off the floor.

The Mavericks have won six of seven games in the West’s crowded fight to claw above the play-in tournament, seven of the 11 since Exum returned from the trainer’s room. It does not feel or seem like a coincidence. Even if Exum looks like the same combo guard from yesteryear, he and Dallas now appear on a different trajectory, even if none of this was direct.