Dante Exum. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
CHICAGO In NBA scouting, there are relatively few mysteries. Teams compile thorough dossiers on players they might acquire, watch top prospects repeatedly in person, then again and again on video. In the buildup to the draft, NBA hopefuls go through repeated physical tests and medicals exams. They are poked and stretched and measured. They are interrogated.
There are relatively few mysteries. But there is Dante Exum.
While Duke's Jabari Parker and Kansas stars Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were playing at top universities, giving interviews on ESPN and playing in March Madness, Exum prepared for his NBA arrival in relative obscurity, practicing twice a day since February in Los Angeles.
"(NBA scouts) have seen some of the college guys play 40-game seasons," Exum said Thursday at the NBA's draft combine, "and they haven't seen me a lot. So I guess when they are trying to look at tape they can't see a lot of tape on me."
Not that it's done much to damage Exum's reputation.
Despite a low profile, he has steadily climbed draft boards. Going into this weekend's combine in Chicago, where Exum and other draft prospects meet for the first time with NBA executives, he was firmly considered to be in the draft's second tier, behind the consensus top three of Parker, Wiggins and Embiid, all absent from the combine.
Enter the Lakers.
The franchise with 16 NBA championships is coming off its worst season since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, finishing 27-55, and is guaranteed its highest draft pick since 1982, when James Worthy went No. 1. Only thanks to their struggles this season do the Lakers have a chance to add a player of Exum's caliber.
Exum has been closely watched by Lakers fans since January, when the 6-foot-6 playmaker said he thought landing in Los Angeles would be the "best option."
And why wouldn't the Lakers be equally intrigued by a slashing point guard with Penny Hardaway size who says he models his game on Russell Westbrook and Manu Ginobili?
While Exum did not play in college, there's a North Carolina Tar Heels link that might be too much for Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, a UNC alum, to resist.
Exum's father, Cecil, is a North Carolina native who played on the Tar Heels' 1981-82 NCAA championship team that featured Worthy and Michael Jordan. He went on to find success playing professionally in Australia, where Dante Exum grew up and attended the Australian Institute of Sport, the same school that produced notable Australian NBA players Luc Longley and Andrew Bogut.
It was at the U-19 World Championships last July in Prague that the then-17-year-old Exum cinched his NBA future.
In a quarterfinal win against Spain, Exum led Australia with 33 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Speculation that Exum might be destined for the Lakers only intensified when he signed with agent Rob Pelinka, who represents Kobe Bryant; worked out with Bryant's trainer, Tim Grover; and was spotted at a handful of Lakers games this spring. But Exum dismissed the idea that he and Pelinka might urge other teams not to draft him so he could end up in Los Angeles alongside Bryant.
"It's a thing that the media twisted from what I've said," Exum said. "Obviously the Lakers are a great organisation, but I'm in this draft to go to someplace where I feel best at that is a good fit for me. Whatever team that is, is the best place for me. There's no one team that I really want to go to."
The Lakers could well be as infatuated with Exum as the point guard has reportedly been with them. Exum said the Lakers were one of the teams he was scheduled to meet last Thursday. But the decision could be taken out of the Lakers' hands depending on the results of Tuesday's draft lottery. After finishing with the league's sixth-worst record, the Lakers have a 21.5 percent chance of climbing into the top three, and could drop as far as ninth.
And while Exum downplayed his previous comments about the prospect of playing for the Lakers, it was apparent the situation still appeals to him. The Lakers have a need at nearly every position, but perhaps most urgently at point guard, where Steve Nash's health keeps him from being a reliable choice and Kendall Marshall is unlikely to be the long-term solution.
"I understand that they're in need of a point guard right now," said Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, who is generally considered the second-best available playmaker and met with the Lakers on Thursday. "That's what they're looking for. But you can't really find out nothing until May 20, find out what's picking what."
If the Lakers do land in the top six or seven picks, expect Exum to remain a popular candidate. In that time, his story will become a popular one.
He had contemplated attending an American college, narrowing his choices to five schools and even taking an official visit to Indiana before opting to train privately.
"I realized that this was my dream and this is what I want to do," Exum said, "so why not take a shot and take a different path."
The fact that the Lakers have historically had success drafting teenagers is not lost on Exum.
It's one more link between him and Bryant, who skipped college to enter the 1996 draft.
"I've talked to Kobe and I've seen him work out a couple of times," Exum said. "And he's just getting back into his stuff, but yeah, I definitely plan to talk to him because I am in a similar kind of position that he was in when he was getting drafted."
The Lakers are in a unique position. It's not quite like 1982, when they had the top pick immediately after winning an NBA championship, but the Lakers still don't have to worry about convincing potential draftees that Los Angeles and the Lakers would be a good landing spot.
"It's been a great city," he said of L.A. "And heading to the Staples Center, it's one of the pinnacle arenas with exception to Madison Square Garden. Seeing the atmosphere of the games and knowing I will be in the league is amazing."