Dante Exum is a bit of a mystery man with regard to Thursday’s NBA draft. He could also be the X factor.
Exum, a 6-foot-6 Australian standout, has not been seen much since July, when he turned heads at the U19 World Championships in Prague. In his last four games in the tournament, he averaged 25.5 points on 44.6 percent shooting along with 4.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds, vaulting him into discussions concerning this year’s draft.
The performance drew comparisons to Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, former Orlando Magic point guard Penny Hardaway and last season’s Rookie of the Year, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Michael Carter-Williams.
“He’s a great athlete, he’s got a lot of skills,” said NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake, who also saw Exum at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland in 2013. “He’s got great size. But he hasn’t played against great competition in a long time, so there are questions.”
Exum is the son of Cecil Exum, a former Australian League pro who played with Michael Jordan on North Carolina’s 1982 NCAA championship team. Some see Dante Exum as a transcendent player, meaning his position doesn’t matter as much as his production.
He had been tabbed to go as high as No. 3 to the 76ers or fourth to the Orlando Magic. Recent reports have him being considered at first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has workouts this week with those teams, including Tuesday in Orlando, and the Los Angeles Lakers, at No. 7, would like to select him, too.
All that is based on his strong finish to the U19 tournament, when the Australian team’s coaches gave him the green light to score more. That came after a less impressive showing against the USA in which Exum, dogged by Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton, held him to seven points. Exum, who committed four turnovers and was flustered, played just 11 minutes.
Although some consider him a point guard because of his ball-handling and passing skills, many say he is a shooting guard because of his ability to score. He heads a class that includes Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, 6-6, and Michigan State’s Gary Harris, 6-4, who went head-to-head three times last season with not much settled in the individual battle.
Stauskas is a prolific shooter with great range who is able to take pressure off of post-up players, and Harris is better at scoring off the dribble. They each have been listed as the second-best prospect in various rankings, with the other third.
Stauskas brings rare shooting skill, which is always highly coveted. Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer witnessed his touch.
“We have a skill test in which (guards) are to make 50 3-point shots in five minutes,” Meyer said. “One rebounder, one ball. (Former Wolverine) Tre Burke made 59 (as a sophomore before entering the draft last year). As a sophomore, Tim Hardaway Jr. made 61. Nik made 75 3s in 87 shots in five minutes.
“No one does that.”
Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Player of the Year, averaged 17.5 points in leading Michigan to its first outright conference title since 1986. Known for having excellent mechanics, he shot 44.1 percent on 3-point attempts (172-of-390) in his two years with the Wolverines.
He improved his ball-handling, play-making ability and defense from his freshman year, although questions remain about his lateral movement. However, he solidified his stock at the NBA combine in May when he did well in tests designed to measure athletic ability.
Strong and physical, Harris is an all-around guard who is rated as a good defender, making the Big Ten All-Defensive team as well as all-conference first team.
“He is an intense competitor, very gifted,” Meyer said. “He’s tough and defends well. And however you guard him, he’s going to find a way, because he can score off the (dribble) and he shoots well. He and Nik had some wars.”
Other top shooting guard prospects are North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston, 6-6, Croatia’s Mario Herzonja, 6-7, Washington’s C.J. Wilcox, 6-5, and UCLA’s Zach LaVine.
Hairston left the Tar Heels in January and played for the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends after he was found to have violated NCAA rules. He averaged 21.8 points for the Legends.
Wilcox, who played four years in college, has good shooting range and is adept at coming off screens. LaVine, like Exum, is a combo-type guard who some see as a point guard. But at 6-5, he’s one of the best athletes in the draft, fast and with a vertical leap near 40 inches.
Perhaps adding to the depth of the position is that there are as many as seven small forwards who are 6-6, and some of them likely will have to make the switch to shooting guard.