"Remember Cecil Exum, who played with the Supercats?"
That's how I first heard about Dante Exum, way back in 2010. Some of my mates just came back from officiating at the National Under 16 Championships, and were blown away by how this kid was changing the course of games at the age of 14 or 15. Next thing I hear, he's not only in the National Under 17's team that is playing at the World Champs, but Brett Brown (yep, that Brett Brown, Head Coach of the Sixers) invited him to train with the Boomers (Australian Senior Mens Team) at fifteen years old, the youngest ever invite to Boomers Camp.
The Basketball Bush Telegraph, to corrupt an Aussie slang term, is a pretty level-headed source of information and gossip. However the consistent thing I was hearing about Dante, from anyone who saw him play, was "this kid is going to the NBA." This was coming not from people who jump on bandwagons and only know Basketball from watching the NBA on TV, but from people with years involved in coaching, umpiring and administrating junior hoops in Australia. As a rule these people are not prone to hyperbole; remember this is the country that elevated Tall Poppy Syndrome to something approaching a national pastime.
Fast forward a few years. Dante is now representing his country again at the World Under 19's and tearing it up; just like the Under 17's he was named in the All-Tournament first 5. So when playing against his peers from all over the world he's still being regarded as someone with a future. He's getting international scouting attention, so the stories go. However, the rumour mill maintains he will go to college. By now Dante is living in Canberra, the nations capital, at the Australian Institute of Sport; the government built and funded sports science and coaching institution that has been responsible for nurturing our star athletes, coaches and administrators for over 30 years. He's living away from home, on campus surrounded by the lifestyle of elite sports, while he studies at a nearby Secondary College, which is the equivalent of US High School.
Don't underestimate the importance of Dante's attendance of the AIS; he's literally spent 3 years living at something approaching P3, learning how to eat right, train right & prepare right, all while growing and maturing. The AIS is also the base for the Boomers, so the national team's coaches and trainers are around Dante constantly. It's like he's been at College for 3 years already, without the crazy rules about who can buy him dinner.
Late 2013. The National Schools Championships are being played in Melbourne, my adopted home city. Dante is the centre of attention, even though his school would lose the final. Later on, talking to a friend who was a scorer for the tournament, I asked about Dante. He smiled and said "Simply the best Basketballer I've ever seen." This is a guy who has has been involved in the sport for over 50 years; he's seen the likes of Andrew Gaze, Patrick Mills and Lauren Jackson as juniors. He's the kind of person who doesn't make hyperbolic statements. "No Bullsh*t," as we say Down Under.
When Terry said that I knew the hype was real.
By now you all know the rest; finished High School in December (our school year runs February to December, with holidays over Christmas and our summer) and went to the US to work out for 6 months with Tim Grover (trainer to Jordan, Wade & Bryant, among others) with some games for the Boomers in there as well. Remember that the kid has basically been living like a pro athlete for 4 years now, so the concept of 2-a-days isn't strange to him. Everyone in the elite system here raves about his work ethic and dedication, so we all can totally believe that he's locked somewhere working 8 hours a day 7 days a week. Then his draft stocks really blow up (how much is due to the smarts of Rob Pelinka, his agent, we will never know) and here we are.
For those who follow me on Twitter, you already know my reaction.
YOU GUYS MY HOMEBOY IS PLAYING FOR THE JAZZ *cries*
— Mathew Walker (@Texas) June 27, 2014
I honestly didn't think Dante would fall to 5; so when what could be the best prospect ever to come out of Australia was drafted by the team I Bleed Purple for I was honestly overwhelmed. My Homeboy is a Jazzman. The guy even follows the same Footy (Aussie Rules) team as me!
This is huge for the NBA here; An Aussie taken in the top 5 has generated a LOT of press. This will be huge for the Jazz too; we are known here, thanks to Jerry, Stock and Karl in the Finals, but it's the same story as everywhere; small-market teams don't really get huge traction. Lakers, Celtics, Sonic..er...Thunder, Heat... the usual. So this will lift the profile of the Jazz here, for sure. Heck, I might be able to buy more than just a damn Jazz hat or sweatband locally!
It's been very interesting to read the reaction of others over the past few days too. There seems to be 3 general schools of thought around Dante:
1. He's got the potential to be a VERY good NBA player
2. He's got the body, but he's unproven; no college, hasn't played against anyone of note
3. This kid was raised in the bush by Koalas, has been in hiding for 6 months, and has hoodwinked the entire world. He's the next Darko.
I can see why people are thinking along the lines of 2 and 3. but let me give you some facts that should reassure you;
- For all the arguments about him being unproven, you need to refine it to 'unproven in the US system.' Sure he didn't go to college, and didn't play a year at that level. However, he's been part of the Aussie Elite Hoops system for over 8 years, in a country that places it's Elite level emphasis on the club and representative system, not the school system (think the 'European Football' model.) Dante has been representing Australia for 4 years, has been training with the Senior Mens Team for FIVE years, and has been living away from home in an elite sports training environment since he was 15 years old. He's played for the Boomers. He played in the "showcase circuit" before the Draft. While I'm not going to deny that he's not had the same amount of competition play at a really high level that any of the other 1-and-done kids have had, he certainly hasn't been Darko either. The kid has been wearing the Green and Gold for years, and representing your country in Sports is a Big Deal for an Aussie. He's certainly had elite level competition, but in a different way to most US kids of the same age, and not as much as a Smart or a Wiggins has.
- "But he didn't go to College!" I actually see this as a positive. How so? Well, Dante's been at the AIS for 3 years. Unlike the NCAA System, with all it's draconian rules and regulations, the athletes at the AIS are not only aren't ruled over like serfs. Dante has been exposed to elite, pro-like facilities, training, nutrition and sports science since he was 15. Plus, he's been living away from home for the same amount of time, just like College, but again at a younger age. I believe this will only help with his maturity and his transition to the Pros.
- "He was hiding" I really don't get this. He played on the world stage repeatedly as a kid. He went to the Combine, worked out for teams when asked, played in the showcase circuit. Is it because he didn't go to College? I've outlined why that's not such a big deal. Besides, if he was a US raised kid, or did prep school in the US, he most likely would have been in this class anyway, as a 1-and-done, given the different timing of our school year.
- "He was raised by our wildlife." That's a bonus; everything tries to kill you down here.