It's early Tuesday morning, Times Square is just beginning to stir, and Dante Exum steps out into the light.
In roughly 60 hours, he will be taken 5th overall in the NBA Draft, a lottery pick that guarantees him a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. But the New Yorkers blowing by him on the sidewalk are oblivious to all that; they're just trying to get to work. And, to be honest, 6'5" frame aside, there's really nothing about Exum that stands out from the crowd.
He is 18 years old, dressed in a white Adidas tank top (which he'll quickly dirty after brushing up against a parked car) and khaki shorts, flanked not by an entourage, but his family – dad Cecil, who played ball with Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina, mom Desiree (who ran track in high school), twin sister Tierra and older brother Jamaar, both of whom are athletes too. Dante cracks a smile as his dad fiddles with the camera hanging around his neck. The draft seems years away.
The Exums live in Australia, where Dante is a star…but this morning, they're just another family on vacation. Within minutes, the entire clan is loaded into a van, where breakfast burritos are passed around. Dante squeezes in next to Jamaar. Cecil hands out mints. And then, they set out for the Statue of Liberty.
"This is my first time in New York," Dante says. "So I asked: 'What's the most touristy thing we can do?'"
If you had never heard of Exum before last night, you're not alone, and definitely not Australian. A product of the country's Institute of Sport – think of it as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, only with better athletes – he made headlines back home when he was invited to try out for the national team as a 15-year-old, making him the youngest player in nearly 30 years to compete for a spot on the roster.
After leading Australia to a silver medal at the FIBA Under-17 World Championships in 2012, he had his coming out party at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit, where, as a member of the World Team, he begged to go head-to-head with future #1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins in practice. He was equally gritty during the game itself, scoring 16 points and showcasing his speed and skill for getting to the rim. Scouts raved about his potential, and the skinny guard had officially arrived on the scene.
The hype continued at the Under-19 World Championship in Prague, where Exum, playing on a bad ankle, went off for 33 points in a win over Spain, then followed that up with 21 against Serbia and 28 versus Lithuania. YouTube quickly began to fill with highlight-reel montages. Before the tournament, Dante was still entertaining notions of college; after it, he knew it was time to go pro. Mom and dad took a little more convincing.
"They wanted me to go to college, but they always knew it was my decision. Because the ultimate goal is the NBA," Exum explains, as the van speeds down the West Side Highway. "Everyone I talk to says 'College was the best time of my life,' but I was determined to get to the NBA; it wasn't worth going for an experience and risking my future."
That decision was big news for folks who follow the Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur, but for the remaining 99.98 percent of the world, Exum remained, at best, an enigma, a name casually mentioned in passing, and always after fellow draftees Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Duke's Jabari Parker.The even-keeled Aussie did not take this as a slight…instead, he used his anonymity to his advantage, taking up residency at an elite training facility in Anaheim, California (a spot frequented by Kobe Bryant) and toiling away for undisturbed hours, with one goal in mind: to become a complete player.
"I knew I had to get better with my court awareness, make sure my ball handling was sharp, learn how to shoot with confidence," he says. "I can't even count how many shots I would take; but I went through it because I knew the end result. I got to a point where I was so tired and exhausted I didn't want to do anything. I would basically go to the gym, come back home, fall asleep, then get up and do it again the next day."
The Statue of Liberty appears in the distance, and Dante takes a picture with his phone. He studies it, then, after a pause, surveys the real thing. He seems slightly disappointed by what he sees.
"It's not that it's not big," he says, gesturing at the monument. "It just looks bigger in the movies."
The van pulls into Battery Park and the Exums pile out into the mid-morning sun. Dante, who has forgotten his sunglasses, squints mightily, and as if on cue – this is New York, after all – a man holding a case of knock-off shades magically appears. Certain he's stumbled upon easy prey, he tries to unload the glasses for $25 a pop, but Desiree counters at $15. After some haggling, the transaction is completed and Dante, soon-to-be NBA lottery pick, boards the ferry wearing a pair of bootleg Ray-Bans.
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