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.
While his family does laps around Lady Liberty, I ask Dante about a recent ESPN piece that has dubbed him the “International Man of Mystery.” Specifically, whether he thinks his secretive status – outside of the U-19 tournament, most scouts haven’t seen him play 5-on-5 ball in nearly a year – will hurt him on draft night.
“Well, I think coming from overseas, you’re always going to be a ‘man of mystery,’ but it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Because I’m the one everyone wants to know more about. It doesn’t change who I am as a player, or a person. It’s just that nobody here knows me…yet.”
That outsider angle is also the focal point of a new Adidas campaign that basically portrays Exum as the basketball-playing Balki Bartokomous (in one spot, he mistakes an electric bill for fan mail). But one gets the impression his “aw-shucks” attitude is largely for show; Exum is repped by the Landmark Sports Agency, which counts among its clients Bryant and James Harden, and, in addition to Adidas, he also has a deals with Red Bull and trading-card company Panini.
It’s the beginning of a solid portfolio, and when coupled with his NBA salary, it all amounts to a pretty nice payday for the 18-year-old. Though, if he’s cashing checks, they’re going straight into his savings account.
“I’m starting to come into all this money, but I can’t think of anything I actually want,” he says. “I’m getting free shoes and clothes through Adidas. If I want technology, I get it sent to me. I’m at a point where I don’t know what to buy, which is good, because I like to save.
“The most important thing is to focus on basketball,” he continues. “Because you could have the money, but if you focus on that, sooner or later, the game’s going to fade for you.”
Answers like that are, of course, clichés by now, though, in Exum’s case, you kind of believe him. After all, over the next 24 hours, the maturity that NBA teams rave about will repeatedly be put on display. After the trip to the Statue of Liberty, he and his family take another ferry – and another van – to Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, where he’ll do a photo op with another friend of the brand, soccer great Thierry Henry. Along the way, Red Bull reps will politely remind him to tweet specific hashtags, and he will be asked to participate in a series of Snapchat videos for the NBA.
On Wednesday, after a few hours of sleep, he and several other draftees will sit in folding chairs on a sweltering swath of asphalt, watch New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio give a speech about the importance of nutrition, then run students through a series of skills tests as part of the NBA Fit program. There are photo sessions and countless interviews, cameras everywhere, traffic jams and buses that shuttle him across the city, usually at their leisure. The NBA Draft does not seem like a lot of fun.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster,” Exum laughs.
And then comes Thursday night in Brooklyn.
In the weeks leading up to the 2014 draft, Exum’s stock had continued to rise, and when Embiid was felled by a fractured foot, some even speculated he might be the #1 pick. Philadelphia loved him at #3, and so did Orlando, who picked next. He had worked out with both teams and, in Philly, had even been given a tour of the city’s historical sites. By all accounts, it seems he’ll be a Sixer.
But then Philadelphia takes Embiid, and Orlando reaches for Aaron Gordon at #4. Exum ends up being picked fifth by the Utah Jazz, the worst team in the Western Conference and one he hadn’t worked out for prior to the draft. They’ve also got one a new head coach and a second-year player, Trey Burke, already slotted into his natural position of point guard. But if any of those things bothered him, Exum certainly isn’t showing it.
“The five minutes in-between picks were the longest of my life!” he beams, seconds after shaking commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. “They gave me a call, said they were so excited to get me into Utah, so they’re flying me out tomorrow morning. It’s unbelievable!”
Exum’s pro career begins shortly after 8 p.m., but the initiation lasts for several hours. Accompanied by a league publicist, two representatives of the Jazz and an NBA TV camera crew, he is led from one end of Barclays Center to the other, making stops in the press room (for on-site reporters) the “live shot” room (international journalists, radio, online) the “phone room” (mostly local media back in Utah) and the “photo room” (duh).
At each point along the way, he is asked about being Australian – an unofficial estimate has him explaining the virtues of Vegemite to at least five different outlets – and how his game will translate to the NBA. He reads liners (“Hey this is Dante Exum and you’re watching NBA TV!”), takes part in a Cisco live chat with Aussie media, answers fan questions in a Google Hangout, does several impromptu chats with reporters, sits down for a radio interview with Mike Dunleavy, shows off his suit for a fashion publication, speaks Chinese for online media company Sina and does not use the bathroom once.
He also does not complain, not even when Wiggins, who had just completed the gauntlet, passes him in the hallway and yells “It’s not over yet, Dante!”
If anything, Exum seems to be delighting in it all. And why wouldn’t he? Long the subject of speculation, the International Man of Mystery has arrived in the NBA, off to Utah to save the day. As he prepares for another photo shoot, I quickly ask him what he knows about his new home.
“I know they have lots of lakes and mountains,” he laughs. “I’m ready to get there and see the beautiful cities.”
And then Dante Exum steps out into the light. In less than 12 hours, he’ll be on a plane, off to begin a new life in a city he’s never visited. A tourist once again.