Dante Exum: The Draft’s Mystery Man
Dante Exum is one of the most intriguing players in the 2014 NBA Draft. At this year’s combine, he measured in at 6’6 with a 6′ 9.5 wingspan and 8’7 standing reach. He can play both guard positions and has a well-rounded game. He’s capable of torching a team with his scoring or making his teammates better as a floor general. With his size, athleticism and skills, he’s a truly unique prospect and he has tremendous upside at just 18 years old.
However, he’s also one of the most mysterious players in this year’s draft class. Today is the first time that many teams and media met Exum, as he is from Australia and has a limited body of work. The only opportunities to see Exum play on a big stage were at the 2012 adidas Nations tournament, 2013 Nike Hoops Summit and FIBA U-19 2013 tournament. While the top prospects in college basketball were under the microscope for the past year (or more), Exum is still somewhat of an unknown.
Exum hired an agent several months ago and has been training for the draft in Los Angeles for awhile. He has gained 10 lbs. of muscle and has switched to an organic diet to prepare for the NBA. While Exum can play both guard positions, he believes he’s a natural point guard and that’s where he prefers to play.
“I see myself as a point guard,” Exum said. “I’ve always played the point guard position, so that’s where I feel comfortable. That’s what I’m entering myself as into the draft, and that’s where I see myself playing. … Most teams looking at me are trying to look at a two point guard set-up, where they can get it to the point guards and they can run the show.”
This is similar to what the Phoenix Suns did last season with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Interestingly, Phoenix is one of the first teams that Exum met with when he landed in Chicago on Wednesday.
“I’ve interviewed with Phoenix, Philly, and Detroit; I have four more today,” Exum said. “They were good. It was good to finally meet them and put names to faces. … [They’re asking] the typical questions, just them kind of explaining why they want to meet with me because they haven’t seen me. They want to know what my game’s like and just get a feel from me as a person. … I guess they all have an idea of what I’m about, but they’ve seen some of the college players play 40-game seasons, but they haven’t seen much of me. When they’re trying to look at tape of me, they can’t find a lot of tape on me.”
When asked which NBA players he compares himself to, Exum said that he has watched a lot of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili among others.
“I can’t look at one player and say that’s who I play like, but I can see different traits that players have that I see: I look at Russell Westbook as that explosive point guard that can get to the rim, and also Manu Ginoboli when he gets into the paint and the way he can finish,” Exum said. “It’s just looking at different players and what they can do, and how that can help my game.”
Exum feels like his workouts in L.A. are helping his progression significantly.
“It’s been good,” Exum said. “I’ve been going twice a day, shooting in the morning and strength and conditioning after that, then some skills work with trainers. It’s been a good process for me, fine-tuning everything I need to work on. … What I’ve really tried to work on was obviously shooting. That’s one thing me and my trainers are trying to get better at. Also, finishing around the rim. Stepping up to the next level is going to be a huge jump, so finishing and post moves. As a taller guard, that’s a good thing to have.”
While Exum is enjoying this process, he can’t wait to get back on the court and play an actual game again. It’s been awhile since these prospects have been able to play an actual game, and even longer for Exum since he has been working individually in L.A.
“It kind of gets to the point where you’re thinking, ‘When am I going to get to play some five-on-five?’” Exum said. “But I know with the summer ahead and Summer League and World Cup with the Australian National Team and then the NBA next season, I’ll get to play a lot of five-on-five. If I get to spend a couple of months just working on my game, then I’ll take it.”
Exum has embraced the role as this year’s mystery man, but soon he could be a household name.
“There are advantages and disadvantages because they haven’t seen me since last July, but I guess I’ve stayed hidden so it works both ways,” Exum said. “My game has changed a whole lot since those [YouTube] clips. I can beat my man off the dribble, find a hole and then find open players. That puts me in good position to be a point guard and also to be the kind of vocal leader that has a voice to tell players what needs to be done, to be that voice of the coach on the court.”
Hood Could Go Higher Than Expected
After watching Rodney Hood work out at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, it’s easy to imagine him climbing draft boards and being selected earlier than expected on June 26.
Hood is automatic shooting the ball from just about anywhere on the court, but he insists he’s not just a shooter. He possesses a high basketball IQ and plays within himself. At IMG, Hood has been working hard to improve his ballhandling and ability to finish at the rim. He has also been spending a lot of time in the weight room in an effort to bulk up and add strength.
Hood is doing two-a-days in the gym at IMG, and he’s also doing a number of other things to prepare for the pre-draft process including swimming, weightlifting, doing drills on the IMG football field, following a nutrition plan and vision training.
“It’s been great,” Hood said of his experience at IMG Academy. With the weight room and the facilities here, it’s been great working with Dan Barto and Kenny Natt. There’s been a lot of individual attention, especially on my game. I have gotten a lot better just in my short time here. … It’s fun being out here at IMG working out with Dan and some of the other guys that are coming out of the draft. It’s been fun and it’s been a grind, but when you love what you do, it’s fun. When you don’t have to worry about school and getting in class and things like that, it just frees your mind up and you feel looser and you want to come to the gym all of the time. It’s just a fun environment.”
Hood believes that he’ll be able to make an impact right away and he’s confident that his game will translate to the NBA.
“I feel it’ll transfer very well,” Hood said. “In college, I was one of the main players so you see six eyes on you at all times. Being played one-on-one, I think that works to my advantage because I could put the ball on the floor. Everybody knows me as a shooter, but I could also do that.. … People label me as a spot-up shooter, but I can also put the ball on the floor and do a lot more things. I’m very comfortable with the ball in my hands. It’s something that I’m going to have to show in draft time and I’m capable of doing that. There’s also more spacing [in the NBA] and you find out that out just shooting from the three-point line; there’s a lot more space on the court.”
Hood also thinks he’s a better defender than people believe. At Duke, he was often guarding the opposing team’s best player and insists that he’s determined to make an impact on both ends of the floor in the league.
“My strengths are definitely my shooting and being a great teammate, just coming to work every single day,” Hood said. “I could score the ball from different levels. My weaknesses right now are finishing and going to the right; I’ve been working on that down here. Some people say that I’m not as good on the defensive end, but it’s something that I could easily show because I feel like I’m a really good defender.”
Hood is excited that the draft process is underway and he can’t wait to start his NBA career.
“I’m just ready to jump in it, I’m ready to compete,” Hood said. “It’s kind of nerve-racking because you haven’t went through it, but at the end of the day it’s just basketball. They’ve already seen me play, but to get up closer and personal, I’m ready for the challenge.”
He says he started realizing that the NBA was a possibility for him when he was a senior in high school.
“Probably my senior year in high school, I thought I had a chance and I just kept working,” Hood said. “Even though I went to Mississippi State, I always felt confident in myself that I would be able to make it. Then once I went to Duke I thought I not only could make it, but be a really good player. Coach K gave me that confidence so I got to continue to carry that out.”
Hood says he has drawn a lot of comparisons to Jalen Rose, who averaged 14.3 points over the course of his 13-year NBA career, but he has also tried to model his game after some other elite scorers as well.
“A lot of people compare me to Jalen Rose because we are left-handed, but I just try to be my own player,” Hood said. “I take stuff from different players like James Harden, [Manu] Ginobili, Kevin Durant, wing players that can do a lot of things. I try to take that into my game.”
NBA Daily: Should the 76ers Make a Splash?
Midway through the season, the Philadelphia 76ers sit atop the Eastern Conference. Still, if the 76ers are serious about competing for a title this season, they should look to add one more piece.
Against the Utah Jazz, Tobias Harris entered overtime with just nine points. But, at the behest of Joel Embiid — who is himself in the midst of his own MVP season — head coach Doc Rivers chose to feature Harris and fed him in the post.
And, for their trust, Harris rewarded the Philadelphia 76ers with multiple huge buckets to close out a season-defining win.
There was plenty to take away from the game, but those last five minutes stood out. In recent seasons, the 76ers have struggled to close out games consistently, especially on the biggest stage. But, during that most recent game (and through much of the season’s first half), Philadelphia has looked their best when it’s mattered most. They sport the league’s seventh-best offensive rating and fourth-best field goal percentage in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. When faced with a top-10 defense, they jump to fourth in offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
While the regular season data is auspicious, it might not mean much. Particularly in this weird season where a lack of offseason conditioning and empty arenas have led many teams into a lull to start the year. Additionally, the clutch data on NBA.com can be a bit unreliable; for reference, the 2017-18 76ers finished fourth in clutch time offensive rating before that number collapsed in the playoffs.
That said, there are certainly differences in this team to be encouraged by.
For starters, Embiid has clearly taken a leap. He’s hitting 53 percent of his long twos and 41 percent of his threes this season, per Cleaning the Glass, while his face-up shooting and post-up game have been as efficient as ever. Arguably his biggest step this season, however, has been his fitness, which would now seem to be at the point where Embiid can stay on the attack for an entire game.
While a bit more subtle than Embiid, Ben Simmons has also improved. While he’s still a non-shooter, Simmons has been more far more aggressive on offense, particularly over the last month. He’s also improved his free throw percentage to just over 70 percent in that span.
The play of those two, along with a rejuvenated and motivated Harris, has been enough to carry the team to the top of the Eastern Conference this season. Now, the question for Elton Brand and Daryl Morey is simple: do they believe those improvements are enough to push the team through the postseason?
Like every contender, the 76ers could and should make some minor additions and adjustments before the trade deadline. While they lead the East, Philadelphia’s net rating is three points worse than both the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, the conference’s second and third seeds, respectively. In fact, the 76ers’ plus-3.1 number is just eighth in the league. The disparity between their record and net rating can be largely attributed to the fragile construction of their bench; when Embiid and Simmons share the court, Philadelphia is crushing teams and posting a plus-15.1 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass; when either of them sits, the number plummets.
As currently constructed, the roster is akin to a house of cards: strong and sturdy when everyone is involved, but when one piece is removed the entire structure collapses. The struggles sans Embiid and or Simmons have been well-documented, but it goes beyond just the two stars. When Seth Curry missed time due to COVID-19, the lack of spacing was near-detrimental to the offense. When Shake Milton missed a few games, the bench went to wrack and ruin without a solid ball-handler to generate offense.
With that in mind, the 76ers are likely to be in the market for at least another ball-handler and a floor-spacing big man. Delon Wright, George Hill and Nemanja Bjelic, three players that would fit and shore up the team’s shaky reserves have been floated as possible additions.
But, was Philadelphia to go on a deep postseason run, those additions would only ever provide spot minutes. If they truly want to make a run with their current core, the 76ers must aim higher.
Morey, more than anyone in the team’s front office, should know this. With the Houston Rockets, Morey went all-in on Chris Paul as James Harden ascended to superstardom. In seven games, they came just short of an NBA Finals appearance, felled by one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen assembled. But, had Morey not pulled the trigger, the Rockets probably never get that far.
If they do look to add a big name, the pickings will be slim. The clear need is in the backcourt, particularly someone with range that can create out of the pick-and-roll.
Of course, that’s arguably the league’s highest-valued skill set. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, the two that best fit the bill, are likely unavailable, with both of their teams aiming for a playoff berth. CJ McCollum, another name frequently brought up in 76ers’ trade talks, is injured and just as unlikely to be moved.
So, who is obtainable and could get the job done? Kyle Lowry or Victor Oladipo likely represent the team’s best-case scenario.
Lowry, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, is the heart and soul of a surging Toronto Raptors squad. But the door is open, as parting ways would seem to beneficial to both parties. Unlikely to compete for a title, Masai Ujiri and Toronto could cash out their aging star before his eventual exit and build around Pascal Siakam. Meanwhile, Lowry, 34, might want to compete for another title, with Toronto or not, sooner rather than later.
As for Oladipo, Houston would be crazy not to move him. 28-years-old and also an unrestricted free agent, Oladipo should be the furthest thing from a fixture in the team’s post-Harden plan. Unlikely to re-sign, the Rockets should recoup what they can from a team that might not mind losing Oladipo to free agency.
Lowry would be the more expensive of the two. But, at this point, he is the better player and the Raptors have more reasons to hold the face of their franchise. That said, almost any deal, even if it were to include a young player like Tyrese Maxey or multiple draft picks, would be worth it for a player of Lowry’s caliber. Oladipo would be a decent consolation — and cost significantly less — but he may not be enough to push the 76ers over the edge.
Beyond those two, the right fit is hard to find. Buddy Hield would be nice (and is a rumor mill fixture), but the Sacramento Kings have shown no desire to trade either him or Harrison Barnes. Evan Fournier is another name that could work but, while it seems as if he’s been on the block for years, Orlando has yet to move him; is this the year they finally cut him loose? Given the emergence of Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham could also prove a cheap but worthwhile addition as well.
Regardless of their target, Philadelphia must seize the moment. Embiid has played like an MVP, Simmons a Defensive Player of the Year and Harris is in the midst of a career-year as well; to let all that come and go and not so much as sniff the NBA Finals would be a major missed opportunity.
There are many reasons to feel good about the current 76ers roster, but they can — and must — think bigger.
Nuggets, Analysis and Predictions for This Year’s All-Star Festivities
Bobby Krivitsky shares his analysis, noteworthy nuggets and predictions for this year’s All-Star festivities.
This year marks the 70th edition of the NBA All-Star Game, an event that began in 1951. Atlanta, for the third time and first since 2003, is set to host the festivities; one of the league’s more memorable All-Star games, the Eastern and Western All-Stars combined for more than 300 points as the East prevailed 155-145 in the lone double-overtime game in the contest’s history. Despite the awkward circumstances surrounding the event, here’s hoping the 2021 iteration can be just as eventful!
So, without further ado, here’s a primer on this year’s All-Star Sunday, featuring noteworthy nuggets, matchup analysis and predictions.
Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout and Skills Challenge Predictions
Let’s start with the festivities taking place before and at halftime of the All-Star Game, beginning with the Skills Challenge. It’s always fun to pick a dark horse to win the obstacle-course competition that tests players’ dribbling, passing, agility and three-point skills — of the group, Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic and Robert Covington (the lone non-All-Star participant) of the Portland Trail Blazers best fit that description.
But who has the best chance to come away with the award? It would seem Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ wunderkind, would be best suited to take home the hardware versus the field.
Later, the Three-Point Contest is expected to be a flurry. Among the participants is a former champion: Stephen Curry, who won the contest back in 2015. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics’ two young stars, are entrants this year, as is Donovan Mitchell, who’s shooting a career-high 38.2 percent from beyond the arc this season. With Devin Booker, another former champion, expected to miss the contest due to a left knee sprain, Mike Conley has been tabbed to replace him. In a crowded field, Curry, inarguably the greatest shooter the game has ever seen, is deservedly the favorite. That said, this writer is backing first-time All-Star Zach LaVine, who’s shooting a career-best 43.5 percent from three — the highest mark among this season’s participants — on well over eight attempts per game.
For the Slam Dunk Contest, which is set to take place during half time of the main event, the three participants are all taking part in the event for the first time. New York Knicks’ rookie Obi Toppin evokes comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks in large part to leaping off two feet to throw down the thunderous dunks when he rolls to the rim after setting a screen.
There’s a difference, however, between being a powerful in-game dunker and one whose pageantry can captivate the audience and earn the top spot in the competition.
Trail Blazers’ guard Anfernee Simons stands at six-foot-three, making him the shortest participant in this year’s contest — some might argue that an advantage, given the added excitement of jams from smaller entrants. That said, Indiana Pacers rookie Cassius Stanley should be considered the favorite; Stanley registered a maximum vertical leap of 44 inches at the 2020 NBA Draft Combine, tied for the third-highest mark since 2000. And, at six-foot-five, the elevation he gets on his dunks will still stand out – case and point:
- The Phoenix Suns are the fourth franchise Chris Paul has been named an All-Star for; the only other NBA players to accomplish that feat are Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal.
- LeBron James is making his 17th All-Star Game appearance, the third-most behind Kobe Bryant (18) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (19). Odds are, three years from now, there will be a new record holder.
- At 20-years-old, Zion Williamson will become the fourth-youngest player in league history to not only participate, but start in an All-Star Game. Bryant, James and Magic Johnson are the only players who took part in an All-Star Game at a younger age.
- LeBron wisely chose Giannis Antetokounmpo with the first pick in this year’s All-Star draft. The two-time league MVP has the highest scoring average in All-Star Game history, producing 27.3 points per game over his first four appearances. By the way, LeBron’s 385 points are the most in the event’s history.
- A record six European players got selected to this year’s All-Star Game: Antetokounmpo (Greece), Doncic (Slovenia), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro).
- There are a record nine international All-Stars, while five were voted starters, also a first: Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Gobert, Jokic, Sabonis, Vucevic, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
- The Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats are the two universities best represented at this year’s event, with three alums from both schools earning a spot in this year’s matchup. The former Blue Devils — Tatum, Irving and Williamson suit up for Team Durant along with former Wildcat Julius Randle. Booker and Anthony Davis, the other Kentucky products, are both out due to injury. Six All-Stars — Curry, Sabonis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Damian Lillard — did not play at a Power Five school.
Unfortunately, Embiid and Simmons join Davis and Booker, though the Philadelphia 76ers duo is out due to contact tracing, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Their health — and the health of the greater All-Star group — is what matters most. But how could their absence affect the game?
On the surface, it’s a devastating blow for Team Durant, who will now play without their starting center and defensive anchor. Expect Team Durant to experiment with units exclusively composed of guards and wings. Expect Williamson, who was moved into the starting group in Embiid’s absence, to play heavy minutes at center, too. On offense, expect Leonard, Irving, Bradley Beal, James Harden and Donovan Mitchell to shoulder the load.
As for Team LeBron, expect more of a group attack. James’ group is made up of the NBA’s elite facilitators — Doncic, Jokic, Paul, etc. — and should be able to easily find the open man for the easy basket. Further, James snagged some of the league’s best from distance, including Curry, Lillard and George. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, is a matchup nightmare himself; expect Team Durant to have their hands full with him.
Team LeBron projects to be more cohesive and dynamic than Team Durant, which is why they should be considered the favorite.
The Return of the Elam Ending
Last year’s festivities sparked a new trend where the fourth quarter is untimed and, in honor of Kobe Bryant, 24 points are added to the leading team’s total after three quarters to establish a target score. It made for a thrilling final frame and, to little surprise, the Elam Ending is back this season.
Nick Elam created the alternate ending in 2007; the idea was born from a determination to see more action at the end of games rather than the trailing team fouling to extend the contest, the leader stalling to protect a lead and or players launching low-quality shots out of desperation.
Who Wins the Game? MVP?
LeBron James is 3-0 since the NBA switched formats to have the two All-Star captains draft their rosters. Sizing up this year’s respective rosters, he seems poised to earn his fourth-straight victory.
James has put together what should be considered one of the greatest passing teams in the event’s history; he’s flanked by Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo James’ first pick, has the highest scoring average in the history of the All-Star game: 27.3 points per game. Adding to his team’s dynamic composition is a bevy of lethal three-point shooters such as Curry, Lillard and Doncic. When it’s time for the final frame and the intensity ramps up, Team LeBron would seem able to get a bucket by any means, a fact that should easily position them to emerge the victor.
As for All-Star MVP, James taking over in the game’s final stages is a distinct possibility. The same could be said for Antetokounmpo, who has yet to earn the award in his five appearances. Doncic, dazzling with his passing and long-range prowess, or Jokic, delivering dimes with surgeon-like precision and scoring from all levels of the floor, could also come up big and earn the honor.
That said, the prediction here is a hot shooting performance from Curry should earn him the award for the first time in his career, while also leading Team LeBron to the win.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — March 6
With the All-Star break upon us, the Sixth Man of the Year award would appear to have a heavy favorite. Ariel Pacheco examines.
With the All-Star break upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. In comparison to other award races, the race for the Sixth Man is a lot more clear-cut in terms of the favorite and their competitors.
There are certainly plenty of players that are having great seasons off the bench but, due to a variety of reasons, are out of contention for the award. Still, their play is deserving of recognition: Terrence Ross is averaging 15.5 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that has fallen out of playoff contention due to terrible injury luck. Montrezl Harrell, last year’s winner, has seen his numbers dip significantly with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — he’s still productive, but his 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game just won’t cut it this season. Tyrese Haliburton has been a surprise, but the rookie and his 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 43.3 three-point percentage off the bench has been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Sacramento Kings squad.
That said, while they’ve performed well, none of those players — and many others — have a real chance to compete for the award. In fact, barring a major mixup in the season’s second half, the race to the award might come down to just three individuals.
3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are in the midst of what is currently the longest losing streak by any team this season. They’ve lost 13 in a row and have completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Houston’s poor record hurts Gordon’s case, but the 32-year-old is still putting up big numbers and, despite a hefty salary over the next few seasons, may even be a guy teams look to add at the trade deadline.
Gordon is averaging 17.8 points per game, the second-most by any bench player this season. He hasn’t been as consistent from beyond the three-point line as in years past, or when he won the award back in 2017, but Gordon’s still more than capable from distance and has been one of the league’s best at attacking the rim. Gordon has also provided some excellent on-ball defense.
Gordon has become a perennial candidate for the award — and for good reason. Still, at this point, it’s hard to justify him over the other two candidates in these rankings.
2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
The opposite of a household name prior to the 2020-21 season, Boucher has burst onto the scene and been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors. His play has been a needed spark for a team that struggled mightily out of the gate but has since turned their season around. So far this season, Boucher has, by far, been Toronto’s most consistent and important big — and he’s been so despite the fact that he plays just 23.8 minutes per game.
Averaging 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Boucher has slid nicely into a role similar to what Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol fuflilled a season ago. And, despite a janky-jumper, Boucher has made his presence felt on the outside, hitting 44.5 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game and clearing major space down low for Toronto’s offense.
In almost any other season, Boucher would have a strong case for the top spot on this list. But, as it stands, may not even garner any first place votes for the 2020-21 iteration of the award.
1. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Because Jordan Clarkson has just been that good.
This year’s runaway favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, there just aren’t many arguments that stand up to what Clarkson’s been able to do this season. He’s scoring the most of any candidate and doing so on great efficiency. Further, he’s proven the offensive fulcrum for the bench of the best team in the NBA.
Clarkson is averaging 17.9 points with a true shooting percetnage of 58.1 percent. He’s been consistent yet forceful offensive punch for the Jazz and their second unit, scoring in double digits in all but one of Utah’s games this season, including a 40-point outburst agaisnt the Philadelphia 76ers’ top-tier defense and 10 games with 20 or more. While All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s success this season, Clarkson has also played an integral role.
Were the vote cast today, Clarkson’s selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award would likely be unanimous — again, he’s been that good. Utah recently gave him a four-year, $52 million deal and, if Clarkson can continue to play at this level, he’ll prove that deal a steal for the Jazz in short order.
For now, this is where the race to the Sixth Man of the Year award stands — but anything could happen in the second half of the season. With that in mind, keep on the lookout for Basketball Insiders’ next peek at the race.