LAS VEGAS — Before the NBA Summer League, Dante Exum’s basketball game was kind of like the Australian Outback.
People have heard stories about its splendor.
People have seen pictures of its uniqueness.
But far fewer have actually witnessed it in person.
Nobody is certain how he’ll perform in the NBA when games actually matter, but the basketball world is getting to know more about the so-called International Man of Mystery.
It only took about four seconds of watching him live — or on TV — to be awed by the quickness of the 6-foot-6 athlete the Jazz drafted fifth overall in the 2014 NBA draft.
In his first four games, the 19-year-old has shown glimpses of greatness with keen court vision, playmaking skills and a better-than-expected defensive ability. But he’s also exhibited rawness, inexperience, shooting struggles and fatigue-induced limitations.
“I think Dante is what we thought he was — he’s young,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after Exum’s 1-for-8 shooting night in the team’s 86-77 tournament loss to the Spurs on Thursday at Thomas & Mack Center.
“He’s got work to do,” Snyder added. “But he’s a kid with a great deal of pride and a will to compete and improve.”
Even after four games on U.S. soil — after most people only saw him in video highlights from a few international outings — Exum remains somewhat enigmatic.
Will he turn out to be the player who uses his rare combination of size, speed, ball-handling and passing skills to emerge as a franchise-type player so many predicted he could become leading up to the draft?
Or will the hype trump the hope as he struggles to adapt to the elite NBA level because of deficiencies, especially with his shooting stroke?
In other words, will he live up to the eyebrow-raising highlights or head-scratching lowlights he’s had so far in his first professional hoops experience this past week in Vegas?
Jazz fans certainly hope Thursday’s game — five points, four fouls and three turnovers — is just an anomaly.
Team Canada coach Roy Rana, a special guest with the Jazz during Summer-League action and a man who’s worked with Exum in the past, is among the group that believes this is all part of the point guard’s maturation process. The rookie did, after all, just turn 19 years old on Sunday, opted to train instead of play college ball this past season, and had only gone against high-level opponents in a couple of international exhibitions and teen-level world competitions.
“I think there’s nothing but strides in this week. I don’t think you can judge it based on a performance on a given day,” said Rana, who was the coach of Exum’s World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit.
“He’s getting a first experience. He’s getting a chance to play a lot of different guys. He’s getting a chance to experience some success. He’s having a chance to experience some tough times and just the grind that the NBA (is) on a daily basis — the practice, the video (sessions). It’s a great growth experience.”
Rana’s first opportunity to coach Exum came in 2012 right after Exum had turned 17.
“It was pretty clear at that point and time when he played in that game that he had real NBA potential,” the Canadian coach said. “I don’t think anybody’s surprised he went as high as he did in the draft. He’s a unique talent.”
Rana rattled off a variety of ways Exum has improved since then: decision-making, strength, size, shooting (even if, he added, that hasn’t been evident this week while the Aussie’s shot 32 percent from the field).
“All areas of his game continue to evolve,” Rana said. “ He continues to improve, continues to grow as a player and grow as a young man. It’s really, really exciting to be able to be part of his initial touches in the NBA.”
Exum and countryman/teammate Brock Motum will leave for Australia on Sunday to begin training with the national team for the upcoming 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
“It won’t conflict with the things we’re doing,” Snyder said. “It’s a great opportunity for him to compete and do the things with that team (that) will help us.”
Motum, a 6-10 big man who played at Washington State and has fared well with the Jazz this summer, is thoroughly enjoying being on a team with a player who’s a star in their country.
“It’s good having an Aussie out there to play with. He’s a tremendous talent,” Motum said after scoring 14 points with eight rebounds in Thursday’s loss. “(Exum) has unlimited upside. I think right now he’s a little young and he’s just gathering experience, but I think he’s going to be a great player for a long time.”
Adam Taylor, a writer for the Geelong Advertiser in Victoria, said Aussie eyes are on Exum because of how recently he played in his home country. Other Australian players — from Andrew Bogut (Utah) to Spurs guard Patty Mills (St. Mary’s) — played college ball in the U.S. before embarking on their successful NBA careers, making Exum's story all the more unique.
“They go to America, do their four years of college and then they get forgotten about back home, whereas Dante’s fresh,” said Taylor, who was in Las Vegas for Summer League and as a basketball coach for a different tournament. “I saw him play only six months ago in a high school game (in Australia) and now here he is. Here I am in Vegas watching him here with the big boys. It’s a different world.”
Taylor believes many Australians will turn into big Jazz fans. He wouldn’t be surprised if the Utah club is followed more closely by Aussies than any other team in the NBA aside from the champion Spurs, who have Mills and Aron Baynes. Taylor even admitted he'll likely start rooting for the Jazz even above his beloved Knicks.
“It’s massive. It’s really big. He’s come through the junior program in Australia, so all those kids who drive hundreds of kilometers to play every Friday night, they’re looking (at) him. Their eyes are opened,” Taylor said. “You just have to look at Facebook and all the social media back home and he’s everywhere. Everybody loves him. Everyone wishes him the best.”
Exum is becoming better known by the day in the U.S. He had plenty of pre-draft publicity for working out in Southern California and occasionally hanging out at Lakers games. He stars in a series of humorous Foot Locker commercials. And while in Las Vegas, the Jazz player was in high demand for interviews with local, national and international media. He was on the Jim Rome Show on Thursday and has done TV segments with NBA Inside Stuff, NBA Entertainment, ESPN’s TrueHoop and ESPN Australia, among others.
All that while he’s been practicing and playing with the Jazz in his inaugural NBA experience.
“For anybody, let alone if you’re (19), to deal with a lot of that stuff is a lot in addition to playing, but I think he’s done well,” Snyder said. “He looks fatigued to me right now, but I think that’s natural.”
“It’s been tough, and this is just a taste of what the real thing is,” Exum admitted. “I look forward to learning from this experience and hope to come out better.”
Leading up to the draft, Exum admitted to reporters he’d prefer going to an NBA team that had an opening at point guard. He didn’t work out in Utah before the draft in part because the Jazz have returning All-Rookie playmaker Trey Burke in the spot and also because his camp didn’t believe he’d fall past three or four.
Although he’s said all of the right things since joining the Jazz, one of the learning curves he’s dealing with has been playing in the backcourt with another point guard and away from the ball as more of a shooting guard.
“I think I’m still comfortable at the point,” Exum said. “I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn’t get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games.”
But asked about his point guard preferences, Exum veered around the question with a safe answer. To sum it up: He’s doing whatever his coach wants him to do.
“With Coach’s system, it’s open, but there’s been so many times I’ve just gone away from the ball and let Trey take it,” Exum said. And his relationship with Snyder? “It’s been good. He’s taught me a few things that I’ve taken into consideration. I’m definitely going to look to add it to my game.”
For starters, Exum knows he has to adjust to the increased speed and physical aspect of the NBA game. He wants to improve his confidence and his aggressiveness. He’s also been warned to prepare for the grind of the 82-game schedule, which will include getting in better shape than he's currently in.
“It’s going to take some time,” Exum said. “It’s just about getting the repetitions up and getting some games under my belt.”
Exum, who’s only averaging 6.8 points and 2.7 assists, has one more NBA opportunity tonight against Portland before returning to the Jazz for fall camp in a couple of months.
“He’s pretty competitive. He wants to win,” Rana said. “He’s pretty hard on himself when he doesn’t play well. He’s a little bit of a perfectionist. He’s a worker, and I think it bodes well.”
One thing’s for certain: People from Down Under to the Salt Lake Valley are cheering for this international mystery to turn into a success story.
Australians, Taylor said, are particularly excited that their cherished secret is getting out.
“We’ve got a bit of pride about him because he’s the unknown,” Taylor admitted. “He’s the X factor.”
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