NBA Sunday: Dante Exum’s Emergence

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Since the early 1990s, particularly after NBA general managers had become fascinated with the likes of Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Vlade Divac, and Dražen Petrović, it became evident that the game of basketball was one that could find gifted contributors outside of the United States of America.

Now entering his sophomore season, Dante Exum hopes to one day leave a similar mark.

Despite being sidelined after suffering an ankle injury, Exum has been a fixture with his Utah Jazz during summer league play. The belief that he can emerge as one of the NBA’s top international contributors first begins with him emerging as a leader for his Jazz and for the 20-year-old, amongst the summer league cast, he finds himself being looked upon for the wisdom that his experiences, thus far, have given him.

“Definitely one of the biggest things is just the leadership goal,” Exum told Basketball Insiders of his goals heading into the 2015-16 NBA Season.

“Me being out here and not playing, just helping some of the newer guys through and trying to be there as a leader of the team, I think everyone has a little bit of respect just knowing that I’ve gone through an NBA season,” he said.

“It definitely helped.”

Now, it is up to Exum to help himself.

* * * * *

As the 2014-15 season commenced, there was an NBA record 101 international players on opening night rosters from 37 different countries.

As early as 1989, the NBA truly began to expand into global brand. It was in April 1989 in Munich, Germany that FIBA officials made the decision to open up Olympic competition to professional basketball players. It was from there that the Dream Team was born.

Since then, steadily and routinely, foreign players from all corners of the globe began being selected and anointed, based mainly on hope and forecasts. In 2002, Yao Ming became the first “true” international player to be selected first overall in an NBA draft, with Andrea Bargnani following shortly after in 2006.

Along the way, the likes of Marc and Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Andrew Bogut, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng and Nikola Vucevic have cemented themselves as foreign-born players who have become superb NBA talents.

But for every Nowitzki, there are eight Jan Veselýs. For each Nicolas Batum or Nikola Vucevic, there are eight Nikoloz Tskitishvilis.

Over the past five years, we have seen the likes of Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Steven Adams, Evan Fournier and Andrew Wiggins come into the league as foreign born players and pay dividends quickly. Still, statistically, foreign-born players still represent a roll of the dice and the questions that Emmanuel Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis have each faced this past draft season are the same types of concerns routinely raised as it relates to a foreign-born player being selected with a high draft pick.

The questions raised about Mudiay and Porzingis this year are the same types of questions Exum himself had to endure last year. But entering his second season, the Australian-born guard is ready to take on the additional challenges that await—newer, wiser, stronger.

On the opening night of the 2015-16 season, Exum will join Cameron Bairstow, Joe Ingles, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Bogut, Aron Baynes, Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova (though he remains unsigned) as the Australian-born players in the NBA.

Aside from Irving, it is reasonable to believe that Exum could eventually become the top player of the bunch. Doing so, however, would require him to first prove that he can be an everyday contributor in the NBA and perhaps permanently supplant a few of the other guards that he competes with for minutes as a member of the Utah Jazz.

As a rookie, Exum played 22.2 minutes per game and eventually assumed the starter point guard role from Trey Burke. With the emergence of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz closed out the 2014-15 season by winning 20 of their final 31 games. The question now is whether the Jazz just “got hot” or actually turned a corner.

As it relates to turning corners, for Exum, that has never been a problem.

His blinding quickness and athleticism have enabled him to reach this point, but in order to truly reach his potential, there is much more required. For him, it will depend, first and foremost, on his ability to become a more consistent shooter at the NBA level, and that is something he is actively working on.

“A lot of it has been shooting over the summer,” he told Basketball Insiders in Las Vegas this past week. “Just getting a wider stance, tightening up my core and just consistency in the shot,” Exum said.

Last season, Exum connected on a very mediocre 31 percent of his three-point attempts, however, the three-point shot accounted for a whopping 64 percent of his total shot attempts. Despite having selected Burke with a lottery pick one year prior, the Jazz selected Exum because the franchise, like everyone else, imagined him using his unique blend of ball-handling ability, body control, size and athleticism to get into the paint, penetrate and create open looks for his teammates. As it became known that Exum was a poor shooter, though, it allowed several teams to defend him in a manner reminiscent of Rajon Rondo—yielding the jumpshot.

For a point guard in today’s NBA, being a threat in every situation is necessary for success, and if Exum wants to become a playmaker approaching anywhere near the proficiency of a guard like Russell Westbrook, he knows that he must first learn to shoot consistently.

“I think just the consistency of it, being straight, being on target, even if I’m not making them—as long as it’s still a good looking shot and it feels good,” Exum said of the work he has been putting into his shooting over the summer. “I think that’s the most important thing. … Once it gets into the game and I start playing one-on-one and five-on-five that I get that carryover.”

Indeed, carryover. It is the most important thing that a player who wants to excel needs to master. Lessons learned as a rookie should not be forgotten as a sophomore. And by the time a prospect hits his third season, he should be informed and experienced enough to make a true impact.

Although he has just one pro season under his belt, that is one season more than many of the summer leaguers with whom Exum is interacting with will ever play in the NBA. For that reason, he is using this experience to become more outspoken and learn a bit about what being a leader looks like.

“It’s been easy for me,” Exum said of becoming more vocal amongst some of the “newer guys,” as he referred to them.

“Getting to know them, talking about the game and their tendencies,” he said, in reference to what it takes to be a good leader.

As for being a good point guard in the NBA? That is something that Exum is still learning. But film reviews, work outs and picking the brains of some of the elder statesmen with whom he rubs elbows—the young Australian is doing his best to soak up as he can.

“I think confidence has been a big thing,” he said of where he has grown, mentally. In terms of what transpires on the court, Exum says that a point guard’s responsibility is to see things before they happen and correct them when needed.

“It’s all about slowing [the game] down in your mind and waiting for the play to happen,” he said.

“Being patient at the top and not trying to rush it. If someone’s not at the right spot, telling him to get in the right spot.”

At the end of the day, in his own words, Exum is the same player he was last season, just with a new perspective, new outlook, and hopefully, with a new jumpshot.

“I’m the same type of player,” he said. “Just trying to get into the paint more and create more.”

And yes, win more.

* * * * *

To whom much is given, much is required. Botched draft picks, crushing expectations and the pressure of knowing that an entire franchise and fan base is counting on you—past NBA drafts are littered with the bones of prospects who have succumbed.

In the end, there are generally two classes of international NBA players—those that excel and those that defect back overseas after failing to meet the challenges that they face here.

As we approach the 2015-16 season, Exum has begun to show the signs of a point guard who truly belongs. The understanding of his weaknesses, his attempt to strengthen them and his willingness to lead by examples are all positive attributes that should only help development, both his personality and that of the Jazz franchise.

Certainly, the route from being an unknown quantity on draft night to an all-time great international player like Sabonis, Marčiulionis, Divac, Petrović, Nowitzki, Gasol or Ginobili is long, winding, circuitous and treacherous.

Fortunately, for Exum, the road has only just begun. The destination is far from here, but in the early going, the journey seems to have gotten off to a good start.