By Lewis Gould
The mystery about whom the Sixers will pick at 3 and 10 in tonight’s NBA draft almost pales by comparison to the mystery of Dante Exum.
Very few experts have seen him play and virtually no one can accurately judge his level of talent and how it projects into the NBA.
Welcome to life as the 2014 NBA draft’s mystery man.
“It’s funny,” Exum said at a press conference in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I didn’t understand it at first. It’s good to be known, but it’s good to be a mystery.”
A convergence of factors — many unexpectedly fortuitous — have combined to create this aura surrounding a relatively unknown player. And now, many are expecting Exum to be a top-five pick in tonight’s draft.
He said Wednesday he’s only worked out for three teams — the Sixers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, holding the third, second and fourth picks — but his agent also has been in contact with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who hold the draft’s top pick. It’s almost mind-boggling for an international player not yet 19 years old, someone off most everyone’s radars not even 14 months ago.
To understand Exum’s dramatic rise and subsequent hype, begin with two basketball events.
In April 2013, the then-17-year-old Exum put on a show at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., scoring 16 points and stealing some of the spotlight from the big-name players also participating in one particular game — which also featured likely top-10 picks Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.
“(But) not a lot of people were paying attention because it looked like he was going to college,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said earlier this week.
Then came the FIBA Under-19 World Championships last summer, in Prague. Hampered by an ankle injury, he played his worst game against the United States — seven points 11 minutes of action — he still averaged more than 17 points per game during the tournament.
“He really stepped out and had a great tournament,” Fraschilla said. “I was there, watched him play. I don’t remember any NBA general manager there. Basically, just scouts — very, very few decision-makers.”
That’s the key here: The folks who will make the decision to take Exum likely will have seen him play in person only once or twice.
Exum finished up his high school career in Australia this past fall and considered playing college basketball in the USA. His father, Cecil, had done just that, playing alongside Michael Jordan as a part of the 1982 national championship-winning North Carolina team.
Exum could have joined a college team mid-season, or simply joined one this fall. His stock had risen so quickly, though, that a third option emerged: Declare for the NBA draft without playing a second of college ball.
Because he’s foreign and turning 19 during the calendar year of the draft, he was eligible to do just that. So he did.
“His crazy high school schedule has actually helped build his mystique,” Fraschilla said. “(He could) maximize the mystery and potential by putting himself in the draft. … The sizzle is there. I think they marketed him perfectly to be a top-five pick.”
Exum’s build is intriguing; he’s a 6-6 natural point guard with incredible athleticism. He’s great at driving to the basket, though that has also prompted some to question his outside shooting — criticism Exum brushes off. But his deep knowledge of the game and his impressive length will help him on both ends of the court. He’s relied on his private workouts and meetings with NBA teams to show them not only how he plays, but how he thinks about the game.
“Even though you haven’t seen that much of him, it’s his upside — he’s 6-6, he’s athletic and he plays the point guard position,” said former Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who guarded Exum at the U-19 World Championships. “He’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Exum has intrigued his fellow draft prospects, and he has also intrigued those in NBA front offices across the country. Now, the draft’s mystery man is mere hours away from having a far-fetched dream realized.
“A couple of years ago, I was thinking I wasn’t going to get college offers,” Exum said. “Everything’s happened so fast. … In a way, it’s all still sinking in.
“It’s actually happening.”