By Sean Highkin
CHICAGO -- Until Thursday, it was difficult to view Dante Exum as a real person. The Australian point guard has been on the radars of NBA draft geeks for a few years, but more as an abstract idea than as a tangible entity. Andrew Wiggins, the projected No. 1 pick in the much-hyped 2014 draft class, had his high-school games broadcast on ESPN and played a full season at the University of Kansas. If you were so inclined to write a scouting report on Wiggins (or Jabari Parker, or Joel Embiid or Marcus Smart), there's no shortage of tape available to break down. But nobody has ever really seen Exum for an extended period of time. He played at Portland's Nike Hoop Summit in 2013, and there are a handful of highlight mixes on YouTube from various U-19 world competitions. And that's about it.
So it came as no surprise that Exum was the star attraction at the annual NBA draft combine in Chicago. Wiggins, Parker and Embiid all elected to skip the event, leaving crowds of reporters to squeeze themselves in anywhere they could fit around Exum's table in the media room.
"I've never done something like this before," he said at the beginning of his session. Neither had most of the throngs of media. The level of mystique that Exum has built up is rare and impressive in 2014. In an age where every highlight is on YouTube instantly and every miniscule detail of an athlete's life is documented on Twitter and Instagram, it's legitimately unusual how little anyone knows about Exum. Let's start with the basics: His combine measurements came out to 6-foot-6 in shoes, big for a point guard, and his wingspan is just over 6-foot-9. His father, Cecil, played with Michael Jordan and James Worthy on the 1981-82 NCAA champion North Carolina Tar Heels. Exum dazzled last summer at the U-19 world championships, playing with the Australian national team. But his game is still a mystery to just about everyone.
"[NBA teams] have an idea of what I'm about," Exum said. "But some of the college players have played 40 games and they've seen them, but they haven't seen me. So they're trying to look at tape. It has its advantages and disadvantages."
Exum hasn't exactly gone out of his way to make himself more visible -- unlike Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, he at least put in an appearance at the combine, but only participated in Friday's athletic drills to measure things like agility and vertical leap. Lesser prospects spent two days running-through on-court skills exercises in front of NBA scouts and executives; Exum skipped all that, preferring to schedule private workouts with teams as the June 26 draft draws closer.
This hasn't negatively impacted his stock, though. DraftExpress.com's latest mock draft has him going fourth overall. CBSSports.com's experts panel has him going as high as third and no lower than sixth. ESPN.com's Chad Ford ranks him the fourth-best overall prospect in the draft. His drill results were solid, and it certainly didn't hurt that in his media session, Exum came across as a polished professional, saying all the right things about wanting to learn and dispelling the widespread rumor that he's trying to maneuver his way to the Lakers (his agent, Rob Pelinka, also represents Kobe Bryant).
"It's a thing that the media twisted from what I said," he said. "Obviously the Lakers are a great organization. I'm in this draft to go to the place where I'm the best fit, and whatever team that is [that] is the place that will draft me."
Just from his combine measurements, the player that scouts and executives around the gym most often compared him to was Philadelphia's Michael Carter-Williams, the newly crowned Rookie of the Year, who is also big for a point guard. Exum wouldn't give himself a direct comparison to anybody, but the names he dropped to describe his game were lofty.
"I like to look at Russell Westbrook, an explosive point guard who can get to the rim," he said. "But then I also like to look at Manu Ginobili when he gets into the paint. It's just looking at different players.
"My game has changed a whole lot since those clips [from 2013]," he added. "I'm a get-to-the-rim type of player. I dribble and draw help to find players, which puts me in a good position to be a point guard. I also want to be that kind of vocal leader on the floor, the voice of the coach."
In Chicago, Exum held private interviews with several teams, including the Pistons, Sixers and Suns, with more scheduled. He gamely answered every question about his thoughts on specific teams (usually with some variation of "It would be a good fit"), but refused to tip his hand on a preferred destination (the draft lottery is scheduled for May 20).
"I want to go to a team that's a good team, somewhere I can fit right in," he said. "Point guard or no point guard, it doesn't matter. I'm willing to go into a role where I can learn from experienced players. There are really no bad situations but there are better situations."
Luckily for Exum, many of the teams in the range of the draft where he is expected to go are in need of a long-term point guard. The Sixers have Carter-Williams and the Celtics have Rajon Rondo, but the Bucks, Magic and Lakers all have holes in the backcourt. It helps that Exum's size makes him easy to convert to shooting guard or play in a two-point guard lineup like the Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe combo that was so successful in Phoenix this season.
"One thing I've tried to work on is my shooting," Exum said. "Stepping up to the next level is going to be a huge jump, so finishing and post moves too. Defense is really important. If I want to be a point guard in this league, there are a lot of fast point guards, so I think my foot speed is something I need to keep working on, [and] also, my strength. Getting in the weight room."
The world's first real look at Exum in an NBA setting will come during July's Summer League in Las Vegas. He also plans to play for Australia in the FIBA World Cup in August. By then, he hopes his transition will be complete.
"I think the most important thing I've learned is that it's what you do on the court that gets you into the NBA and what you do off the court that keeps you in the NBA," he said. "That's something I'm taking very seriously. Being prepared for games, being prepared for my workouts. That's one thing that I think is going to keep me in the NBA and have a long career."
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.