Excellent Exum exceeding expectations at Mavs after failing first exam led to early exit from NBA
It’s often said that success for almost all every NBA players is about fit.
If you’re in a situation that suits your skill set, you will thrive.
But if not, it’s likely to be a struggle unless you’re a genuine superstar like LeBron James, Nikola Jokic or Luka Doncic.
For Dante Exum, the expectation when he was drafted at No.5 by Utah in 2014 was that he could potentially be a game-changing player.
But he’s one of the 95+% of NBA players who need to be in the right set-up to maximise their talents.
And in Dallas, with Doncic the dominant force, Exum has found his feet in his second chance at life in the NBA.
The mystique that was built up from being an international player instead of a product of the US college system probably meant he went a few slots higher than he otherwise would have gone nine years ago when Exum was taken ahead of Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Zach LaVine.
He was never going to be a franchise cornerstone but at best a high-lever role player and the Jazz were in a strange spot during his early years, over-achieving with Gordon Hayward becoming a breakout star but never truly having a path to long-term success.
And after Hayward left for Boston in free agency, Utah took a new direction with Donovan Mitchell their go-to guy but again Exum couldn’t find his niche.
After being traded to a Cleveland side mired in the post-LeBron vortex, Exum’s NBA career looked over when he headed to Europe two years ago.
The trans-Atlantic trip ends in one of two ways – a player never makes it back and bounces around various European nations or the lucky few get another chance in the NBA if they work hard and the right opportunity pops up.
Dallas picked up a bargain when they signed Exum to a two-year minimum deal in July, a move which barely created a ripple in free agency news outside of Australia.
For the first 19 matches of the season, he was given minutes here and there, never getting more than 20.
But after a raft of injuries, he was suddenly thrust into a bigger role and since then he’s not played less than 20, wrangled a spot in the staring line-up and is averaging 15 points a game while racking up assists, rebounds and pushing the pace.
Getting the ball up court at speed has always been a strength and with Doncic ready to put the finishing touches on attacking forays, it’s a system which is delighting coach Jason Kidd.
His advanced stats reflect the giant leaps he’s made in a Mavs uniform.
Exum’s player efficiency rating (per 36 minutes) is a career-high 17.1, as is his true shooting percentage (65.7%), while his field goal (56.7%) and three-point 43.9%) rates are significantly better than anything he produced at Utah or Cleveland.
Dallas are still a flawed overall roster but their 18-14 record to sit sixth in the Western Conference keeps them in the playoff hunt and in Doncic’s good books.
The Kyrie Irving experiment is still a work in progress due to his recent heel injury.
If they are to become true title contenders with Doncic at the helm, it’s important for them to have complementary players, not necessarily stars, riding sidesaddle.
Doncic is reminiscent of LeBron in his prime in that he has a similar large frame but plays as the pseudo point guard on offence, dominating the ball handling.
Players like Mario Chalmers and another Boomers guard in Matthew Dellavedova thrived as defensive-minded point guards alongside LeBron during his Miami and Cleveland championship charges.
The best-case scenario for Exum in Dallas is to play that kind of role for Doncic.
Exum is not the kind of point guard who suits a traditional ball-distributor role. His strength is being a three and D wing and that’s how he’s thriving in Texas.
Australian teammate Josh Green made his return from nearly a month out with an elbow injury earlier this week and looked a little rusty for Dallas.
But he has also shown enough over the past couple of seasons to suggest he can work well with Doncic as the Mavericks try to come up with a formula to build a championship squad around their MVP candidate.
Their title hopes, as the team is presently constructed, hinge on Irving -coincidentally a third Australian-born guard – recapturing his All-NBA magic.
If that happens, they are a chance of challenging Denver in the West but while he’s remained a proven scorer, he has topped 60 games a season just once in the past six years.
The Mavericks remain a team in flux but Exum’s career is now firmly positioned back in the NBA.
Dallas have him on the cheap at $3 million a season for two years but if his career stays on this upward trajectory his next contract could be higher than the $11m annual salary which was his peak at Utah.