The Dream Of Dante Exum Is Alive Once Again
12:36 PM EST on December 13, 2023
In 2014, I was working a dead-end, soul-crushing job at a social media agency under the thumb of beloved alpha tech moron Gary Vaynerchuk. I had been fully checked out of this job for some time, and was waiting for a mercy killing that would eventually come several months later. In the last, let's be generous, six months of my time there, I decided that I needed something to help pass the time while at the office. Since this was during the dying gasps of the Miami Heat Big Three era, I chose to get even more into basketball, and more specifically to take a serious interest in that year's incoming draft class. Let me refresh your memory: The 2014 NBA Draft class was headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker (oof), and Joel Embiid. Those three were the top picks in the draft, and after the Orlando Magic took Aaron Gordon, the Utah Jazz selected my favorite prospect of the batch: Australian guard Dante Exum.
Exum was everything I liked in a prospect, with plenty of skills and potential to dream on while otherwise sitting perfectly still at my work computer. He was a huge point guard—he measured at 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan—who could, in theory, handle the ball, create for teammates, cut to the rim, and defend with his long arms. He couldn't shoot, and that was a red flag even if the league hadn't yet shifted entirely into Steph Curry cosplay, but he seemed to have everything else to become, at the very least, a League Pass favorite. I was bummed that he went to Utah, primarily because who wants to watch the Jazz? The answer, I discovered to my dismay, was that I wanted to do it. I found myself watching Jazz games, very much against my better judgement, just to watch Exum flourish. The only problem? He absolutely did not flourish.
It turns out that Exum's physical tools and on-ball skills didn't quite translate to the NBA; they were attributes without anything really tying them together or giving them purpose. He was too slow, too error-prone, too much of a liability off the ball to be a star; that much became clear quickly. As time went on, it became harder to see him as a useful role player, or even an NBA player at all, once the injuries came. An ACL tear in 2015 was the first death knell for his career, and shoulder surgery in 2017 was the second. Exum was eventually traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2019, and became a Houston-bound part of the trade that sent James Harden to the Nets. Exum was not exactly an important piece of that trade, although someone's salary had to make the money work. He never played in a regular season game for the Rockets and was done there, and seemingly in the NBA, by 2021.
When Exum signed with Barcelona in December of 2021, I wrote him out of my brain's cavernous expanse. There were other things to worry about by then. I wasn't even aware that he only lasted eight months in Spain, before moving to Partizan NIS Belgrade in Serbia. Exum apparently turned into a decent shooter in that time (42.1 percent in two seasons), but successful technical tweaks made in the Serbian league fall below my threshold for caring. There are too many NBA players to waste time on remembering Exum, and beyond the general melancholia of a highly-touted prospect's extended swoon there wasn't really much to remember. I let it go.
Or so I thought. I heard the name Dante Exum again this summer, as he returned to the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks. There he was, a real NBA player once again, and on a team that wasn't elite, but certainly wasn't a futile enterprise. Just making that roster felt like an achievement after those years orbiting the drain, and Exum even started playing some games; he's gotten into 20 out of Dallas's 23 to date. Still, the return for former lottery pick Dante Exum—now 28 years old, somehow—to a rotation role wasn't exactly a redemption story of epic proportions. His stat-line for the season is fine, in so much as these things can be: He's averaging 7.4 points and 2.4 assists per game, though his shooting percentages warrant a second look (52.8 from the field, and a tidy 40.5 percent from three, albeit only on 1.9 attempts a game).
With all of that context dispensed with, I will now ask one simple question about Exum's performance on Tuesday night against the newly crowned NBA In-Season Tournament champion Los Angeles Lakers: What the fuck? In 36 minutes that made me believe in miracles once again, Exum scored 26 points (two off of his career high), on 8-of-10 shooting and 7-of-9 from behind the arc. The Mavericks won the game, 127-125, and they needed every single one of Exum's points to do so. Here, nearly a decade late, was The Dante Exum Game.
These weren't empty calories, either. Exum went 5-of-7 from three in the fourth quarter, helping Dallas turn the game around after getting stomped 34-22 in the third. Any time the Lakers would take the lead or get within striking distance in the final frame, there was Exum, that prospect from a different era who couldn't shoot whatsoever, hitting another clutch three-pointer. The biggest of all was Dallas's last basket on the night: After Austin Reaves hit a three with 1:16 left to get the Lakers within three, Exum nailed one of his own, pushing the score to 127-121 and giving Dallas enough of a cushion to ride out the final minute.
Even in this type of explosion, it is somehow fitting that Exum was only Dallas's third-leading scorer, trailing Luka Doncic's 33 (of course) and Tim Hardaway's 32 off the bench. Still, he was there, he was involved, and I can't believe it even in the sober light of day.
It's possible, and maybe probable, that this type of game is just an aberration for Exum. It's less likely, but infinitely more exciting, that he has become what I always wanted him to be: not a superstar, but just someone who can play in the NBA without looking like a deer in headlights.
The signs are there, and the situation seems to be right, too. Exum is on a team where he doesn't need to do too much; he only had three assists on Tuesday, but hey, Doncic had 17, including a silly wrap-around one to Exum himself, so who needs those? If he can develop as a tertiary-or-worse option for a team with aspirations for not just the playoffs but a run into the later rounds, then his potential might crystalize into something more important: not just a talent, but a player. That never felt like it was in the cards for him after he was drafted, but I am thrilled to say that Dante Exum, after years in the basketball wilderness, has found a team that he might just be able to call home.