Now that Dante Exum has officially declared for the draft, I figured it’s time to put him under the microscope to see whether his hype is justified. I analyzed his performance vs Spain in the FIBA u19 games this summer to try to get a feel for what he brings to the table as a prospective NBA player. Note that this game occurred the week before he turned 18:
This was Exum’s best scoring game, so perhaps not all of his weaknesses were fully exposed. I looked at DraftExpress’s scouting report to see if they listed any weaknesses that may not have been on display. Their list:
-Perimeter shooting- this is the one that everybody acknowledges
-TO Prone/PG Skills- this took my by surprise- I’ll touch on this below
-Shot selection- easy to see why, although I don’t think it is a significant weakness.
-Strength- this is the other obvious one on top of shooting.
With respect to turnovers, they claimed that he sometimes plays out of control which is true to an extent- one or two of his turnovers this game could have been qualified as such. Also against the US he was benched due to playing out of control after committing 4 turnovers in 11 minutes, as Australia went on to lose 94-51. But he still only had 21 total turnovers in 9 games over the tournament, which is excellent.
Let’s compare his FIBA stats to those of Tyler Ennis. Ennis played for Canada which was a similar caliber team (Canada finished 6th, Australia finished 4th, the teams shared a 4-5 record, and Australia had a slightly better PD +1.8 vs +0.6). Differences of note are that Australia played a tougher schedule (both teams played the US once, but Australia played the second best team in Serbia twice while Canada didn’t play them at all), and Ennis had Trey Lyles on his team as a second big time scorer to draw defensive attention. Ennis led the u19 games scoring 20.9 points per game, Lyles was third with 20.3. Australia’s second leading scorer was Dane Pineau who averaged 11.8 pts/game. Also Australia was slightly better defensively (97.2 D-Rating vs 98.2) so it’s not like Exum had the benefit of a hugely pro-offense team construction that Ennis did not:
As a freshman at Syracuse, Ennis is averaging 34.4 mpg 12.1 ppg 5.6 apg 1.5 topg playing as more of a distributor than scorer. That is an excellent turnover rate for any point guard, let alone a college freshman and it will be a large reason why he is likely a lottery pick. Yet at the FIBAs, Exum had more assists and fewer turnovers against a tougher schedule with just a slightly larger scoring load, and DraftExpress gleaned that turnovers and PG skills is a weakness!
On one hand they are doing their due diligence to list everything that can be perceived as inadequate for an unproven player vying for such a high draft slot. And it’s possible that he got lucky to have a low number, as 9 games is a small sample and I noted in the video that the scorekeeper miscredited one of his turnovers vs Spain. But even after you add up the out of control possessions and the lazy low leverage passes that went awry, his bottom line result was excellent. He clearly is doing something correct to avoid them, and I believe it is a testament to his ball handling, passing, and basketball IQ. Against Spain he repeatedly got into the lane and made beautiful passes to his teammates, but of his pile of turnovers only one of them came on a drive and kick when his pass was deflected.
DX’s qualm with his PG skills is that sometimes he misses teammates and forces shots, which is a perspective I understand after seeing some of his forced shots in the paint vs Spain. But in that game, he did much more finding teammates than he did missing them. I’m not sure if it was an above average distribution game where his teammates did a below average job of converting. But he was credited with 4 assists and averaged 3.8 for the tournament, and it’s inevitable that his teammates failed to convert some significant amount of quality looks created by Exum in other games.
With respect to shot selection, I again do not think he was particularly bad. He should inevitably attempt some bad shots with such a great disparity between his talent and that of his teammates, and his intelligence inspires confidence that he will learn to improve his shot selection with better NBA teammates. Also DX takes exception to his volume of 3 point attempts, but he shot 33.3% for the tournament so again the bottom line does not look bad. It would be more upsetting if he instead insisted on launching long 2 pointers.
Taken altogether, I’d qualify all things efficiency and basketball IQ related (turnovers, PG skills, shot selection) to be a distinct positive. The fact that DraftExpress listed this as a weakness is a testament to the fact that there’s so little to dislike about Exum. His actual weaknesses are his shot and strength, and he is reportedly investing significant effort to improve both. My next biggest qualm is that while he is a fluid athlete, he is not particularly explosive.
Even without great strength or explosiveness, his tools are decidedly positive as he brings elite speed, quicks, height, and length to the PG position. Even without a great shot, his combination of ball handling, passing, and touch around the rim offer promise as a future offensive centerpiece, especially if surround by good shooting. He projects to be a positive defensively as well. The only thing that could prevent him from becoming good is poor development, but he reputedly has an excellent work ethic.
Exum idolizes Derrick Rose, which is sensible as the players offer similar value. They both have a great combination of size and speed for the PG position. Rose is stronger and more explosive, but Exum is taller and longer as he is 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan vs Rose’s 6’2.5 with a 6’8 wingspan. They share questionable shooting as their weakness, as Rose’s shooting improvement played a large role in his winning MVP in his 3rd season in the league. While Rose’s freshman season was good, his ability to grow was what made him such an appealing prospect and successful NBA player until derailed by injury. While Exum’s future growth rate is a mystery, his work ethic and intelligence are two strong points in favor of it being good. Even his college stats parallel closely to Exum’s FIBA stats:
This is not an apples to apples comparison by any stretch, but you can see the similarities in their mold. It’s possible that Exum would have been worse than Rose with a season in college, but he also may have been better and I don’t think he would be at risk of being as bad as Andrew Harrison. Also Exum will be a year younger on draft night than Rose was. It’s fair to give Rose the edge as an overall prospect due to his edge in athleticism and his excellent performance in the NCAA tournament, but I do not believe Exum is particularly far behind.
Exum’s value largely hinges on his performance in workouts. If he is as working as hard on his shot and body as people around him indicate, he will likely boost his stock and vault into the top 3. Exum is perceived as the mystery box of the draft, but with Andrew Wiggins’ underwhelming freshman performance he is no longer a can’t miss star. Even if you assign a Marvin Williams level floor to Wiggins, that’s hardly much consolation for a top 3 pick. I doubt that Williams becoming a semi-useful pro makes Billy Knight feel particularly better about selecting him over Chris Paul. Especially at the top of the lottery, a player’s value is almost entirely driven by his upside and his odds of achieving it. While Wiggins has shown better outside touch and more potential as a complementary piece on offense, Exum’s upside as an offensive centerpiece is more attractive. I don’t think Wiggins has a significant enough (if any) defensive edge to offset this. As of right now, I rate Exum as the 2nd best prospect overall in this draft, with Jabari Parker having the best shot of supplanting him with a strong finish to his season.
The worst thing that can be said about Exum is that he is young and needs to spend time developing before making a large impact as a pro. But I believe in his upside, and I believe that he is unlikely to flop completely. Indications are that this mystery box just might contain a boat after all, and you know how much we wanted one of those.