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: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.