An Aussie Basketball Star in America


Australia is about to send another sporting export to the United States, and this one might be better than all the rest.

A number of athletes from Down Under have made an impact in the U.S. pro leagues over the past few decades. There have been all-stars (Grant Balfour of the MLB), all-pros (Darren Bennett of the NFL) and even a top draft pick (Andrew Bogut of the NBA), but until now, there’s not been a true Aussie superstar in America.

That might change with Dante Exum, rated by most as the top guard in the upcoming NBA Draft in late June. Exum declared for the draft as he will be turning 19 this July, making him eligible under NBA rules. He spent a year at Canberra’s Lake Ginninderra Secondary College and opted not to play for an American university team, as is the norm for most prospects.

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Though he was born and raised in Melbourne, going to America should not be much of a culture shock. Exum boasts an excellent connection to U.S. basketball.

His father Cecil played collegiately at the University of North Carolina and was a member of the Tar Heels’ 1982 national championship team that starred James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a freshman named Michael Jordan.  After college, Cecil set off for Australia, played in the NBL for seven seasons and decided to stay and raise a family with his wife Desiree, also a UNC graduate.

Because of Cecil, Dante’s progress as a young basketball prospect did not go unnoticed by NBA scouts. The fact that he led his Lake Ginninderra team to the national championship and starred for Team Australia at the FIBA U-19 World Championship only improved his stock.

At 6-foot-6, Exum is highly regarded for his athleticism and intelligence. Many talent evaluators compare him to former Orlando all-star Penny Hardaway and current Philadelphia 76er Michael Carter-Williams. He has the ability to score and distribute on offense and with his long wingspan he has the potential to develop into a top defender.

Though Exum played primarily as a point guard, some NBA teams see him as a combo guard, capable of playing both the point and shooting guard positions. He’s also inherited his father’s competitive streak: Though he was mostly a bench warmer, Cecil never allowed his more celebrated teammates to dunk on him during practice.

Dante arrived in the U.S. in mid-May for the NBA’s pre-draft camp and was immediately swarmed by the media; most knew little about him or his background.

“It’s crazy to think last year I wasn’t even on these mock drafts or anything like that and I was looking to get recruited by colleges,” Exum told the assembled media during the pre-draft workout in Chicago. “To be in this moment is just amazing.”

Most mock drafts have Exum pegged to go fourth to the Orlando Magic, as the first three picks are expected to be big men – University of Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and Duke’s Jabari Parker. And there are also trade possibilities.

The NBA’s two marquee franchises are coming off atrocious seasons and are looking to rebuild. Both the Boston Celtics (drafting sixth) and Los Angeles Lakers (seventh) are in need of a guard who can fill a key void in the backcourt.

There is strong suspicion by many that Los Angeles is Exum’s preferred destination. His agent Rob Pelinka happens to also represent Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who’s recovering from an Achilles injury and can use some help in the backcourt. It’s unlikely, though, that the Lakers would be able to get him without trading up.

Exum claims that he does not care where he gets drafted and just is thrilled at the opportunity of fulfilling his dream.

“Obviously the Lakers are a great organization,” he said. “But I’m in this draft to go to a place I feel best at, that is a good fit for me. … It is nice to get all the attention so I’m taking it one step at a time, and enjoying it. I guess we’ll see what happens.”

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