In 2014, it is not necessarily a major surprise when a player from outside of North America gets drafted in the high lottery of the NBA draft. Nevertheless, many basketball fans watching Thursday's draft may have been taken aback when the Utah Jazz made Australian combo guard Dante Exum the fifth pick in the draft.
In truth, the highest-drafted Australian since the Milwaukee Bucks selected Andrew Bogut first overall in 2005 is one of the most intriguing and talented players in this class. Exum doesn't turn 19 until July 13 and has already dazzled scouts all over the world. He measures 6-foot-6 in shoes, has the skills to star at point guard or shooting guard (or a mix of both), and was even discussed as a potential top 3 pick even when Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid seemed to have entrenched themselves as the first picks (in some order) of the draft. While that trio did end up in their assumed positions, it's no mistake that Exum was mentioned alongside that group. Players don't earn comparisons to Penny Hardaway by accident.
For that matter, Exum is far from unfamiliar with the world of American basketball. Both his parents are Americans, with his father Cecil having played at North Carolina alongside Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and the rest of the 1982 NCAA title-winners. The elder Exum played seven years in Australia's National Basketball League and settled in Melbourne after his career ended.
One thing we do know about Dante Exum is that he can be pretty funny. In new Foot Locker ads that aired during ESPN's draft telecast, he poked fun at his newfound fame:
The question, as with many international players, is whether NBA teams got a good look at Exum before deciding he could be a future star. That exposure, limited as it may be, has been filled with impressive notices. In July 2013, Exum led an Australian team with relatively weak talent to the semifinals of the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Prague, averaging 18.2 ppg and 3.8 apg over nine games. However, that tournament included a blowout loss to a loaded Team USA squad that featured fellow 2014 lottery picks Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, and Elfrid Payton. In that game, Exum managed seven points on just three field-goal attempts and turned it over more than four times in only 11 minutes of play. The U-19 tournament also represents his last real competitive action prior to this draft, which raises some concerns over his progress. On top of those concerns, Exum has to deal with the fact that most high-end international prospects are taller — he's one of just a few foreign-born guards to go near the top of the lottery.
Yet Exum is still very young, and many teams saw enough to like in his pre-draft workouts to make him a near-certain top 5 pick. Although the Jazz gave him that designation, it served as a fair surprise when the Orlando Magic passed on Exum to take Gordon with the fourth selection. With combo guard Victor Oladipo already on the roster (and playing a lot of point guard), it's possible that Orlando did not want to put two guards without an obvious position in the same backcourt. The Jazz have point guard Trey Burke, who impressed as a rookie, and could opt to play Exum off the ball. He has some experience in that role at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and performed well, primarily given his excellence in getting to the hoop.
You can be forgiven for thinking that Exum hasn't proved much to earn such a lofty selection in the draft. At the same time, that's true of most people in this position, including former preps-to-pros players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. The truth is that we don't know much about how any draft prospect will translate to the NBA. We just know a little less about Exum than others picked before and after him on Thursday night.
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