Dante Exum can smile about it now.
He jokingly calls it his "Michael Jordan story," a nod to the NBA Hall of Famer's infamous tale about being informed he wasn't good enough to play on his high school team. But Exum wasn't laughing three years ago after he was cut from an under-16 club team in his native Melbourne, Australia.
"It was probably the most tragic thing that ever happened to him," says Exum's mother, Desiree, who says that Dante was devastated he didn't make the 12-member team or even get selected as one the three emergency reserves. "It was the first real disappointment he'd had."
Exum Strategy Planning, as Desiree called it, was quickly implemented. She and her husband, Cecil -- a reserve on the 1982 North Carolina national championship team that was led by Jordan -- began researching basketball camps in the U.S. in an effort to shore up Dante's confidence. They settled on a UCLA camp run by former Bruins coach Ben Howland because it was only a 15-hour flight from home as opposed to a 20-hour journey to the East Coast.
"I wanted him to go to a North Carolina camp," Cecil joked. "But it was too far and the timing didn't work. We needed to get him in something quickly."
Fast forward two years to April 20, 2013. The soft-spoken Aussie, then 17, let his game to do the talking at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon. Following a 16-point performance in a game that featured projected lottery picks such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Noah Vonleh, someone sidled up to Exum and informed him that the NBA draft site DraftExpress had slotted him fifth overall in its 2014 mock.
Exum was confused, but flattered. He was thrilled to be mentioned with the likes of Wiggins and Parker, whose exploits he'd been reading about on the Internet for the previous year or so. But he also figured the notion that he'd go directly from Australian high school basketball to the NBA was nothing but a pipe dream.
"I can't go," Exum said. "They made a mistake. It's cool to be on there, but I have to go to college."
The plan was always for Dante to go the collegiate route like his dad and mom (who's also a North Carolina grad), even though Ian Stacker, Exum's coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, the country's premiere sports training institution, was pushing his standout pupil to spend a year in Australia's National Basketball League. Cecil wanted his son to experience campus life and maybe even wear Tar Heels blue.
But that one game in 2013 changed everything.
"That's when it all started," Exum said, shaking his head as if he still can't believe the whirlwind that has been his life over the past year.
Rich Sheubrooks, a Nike global scout who also scouts for the Utah Jazz and has been running the Nike Hoop Summit for the past 17 years, had watched Exum lead Australia in scoring at the U17 World Championships the previous year in Lithuania. "You knew he could play at first sight," Sheubrooks said.
Around 5:30 the morning following the tournament's championship game, Sheubrooks was at the airport heading home when he ran into the talented Aussie. He wasted no time doling out the earliest invite in the history of the Nike Hoop Summit, landing Exum nearly a year in advance of the event. Exum was still groggy, and too fatigued to digest what had just happened.
In the days leading up to the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit game, which pits a group of the elite, hand-picked high school Americans against a team of selected international players, Exum yearned to guard his teammate Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 Canadian, in practice. In fact, he practically begged for the challenge -- and more than held his own. While Wiggins, a freakish athlete, occasionally got past Exum and soared to the rim, Exum also slowed down the consensus projected No. 1 overall pick.
"It was a way for me to get noticed," Exum said. "If I'm going to get myself seen, I'm going to have to stop Wiggins. That was my mission the whole week."
Exum was solid but hardly eye-opening throughout the week of practice, according to one NBA GM who was there. But his play during 22 minutes of game action vaulted him onto the NBA's radar.
But it was still just one game.
NBA folks marveled at his length and athleticism, his ultra-quick first step and long strides while accelerating on his way to the basket. The ability to elevate once he gets there -- and also the potential to play point guard at nearly 6-foot-6. The kid had what every NBA executive wants: massive upside.
"But it was all based on potential," says another NBA GM. And there were concerns with Exum's iffy perimeter shot. There were also the questions about whether he was truly a point guard or an average-shooting 2-guard, and whether he possessed the "killer instinct" valued by certain execs.
But Exum remained a mystery man despite his array of physical gifts. Scouts flocked to Prague for the FIBA Under-19 World Championship a couple of months later to see if the kid was a one-hit wonder. Exum started the tournament slowly, hampered by an ankle injury, and had nine points and six assists in a 90-46 rout over Senegal. He went for 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting in a 21-point loss to Serbia and finished the preliminary round with 12 points and five assists in just 18 minutes in a 73-45 rout over Brazil.
Exum scored 20 points in two of the next three games with a seven-point, 11-minute performance in a 94-51 loss to the U.S. sandwiched in between -- a game in which Exum left early with an ankle injury.
But it was the three games in medal play that showed Exum was no fluke. He led Australia to an 87-76 win over Spain with 33 points and an uncanny ability to get to the basket whenever he wanted. Exum made 9 of 18 shots from the field, connected on a trio of 3-pointers and also converted 12 of 13 shots from the line. He followed up with 21 points in a semifinal loss to Serbia and went for 28 points and dished out five assists in an overtime loss to Lithuania in the final game of the event.
That was July 7, 2013 -- the last time NBA personnel would see him up close in a 5-on-5 setting.
But Exum soon learned from Stacker that he was, in fact, eligible for the 2014 NBA draft thanks to international rules that allow players to enter the NBA as long as they turn 19 in the calendar year of the draft. (Exum turns 19 on July 13). Cecil did some research. He discovered that his son's stock had indeed soared and, after discussing it with his wife, came to the conclusion that the best decision for their son was to bypass college.
Exum finished his high school career in Australia, graduating in December while weighing his options: to realize his dream of playing college basketball or to go directly to the NBA. He trimmed his list to five schools: Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan and Oregon. Cecil says that Kentucky's John Calipari even threw out the possibility of Dante joining Kentucky for the second semester of the season and jumping right into the fire.
"He would have been at a major disadvantage," Cecil said. "Behind the eight-ball. I shot that down and told the other schools that was not an option."
Dante maintains that he would have chosen to play for Tom Crean at Indiana, the lone school he actually visited, if he had opted to go the college route.
But by that point, Exum was frustrated. He wanted to make the decision himself. But it seemed like everyone -- friends, family, basketball folks and even the media -- assumed he would go directly to the NBA. After a family sit-down late in 2013, Exum came to grips with the fact that, as a lottery lock, the decision had become a no-brainer. He decided to sign with an agent and declare for the draft.
Now the kid who was largely considered a mid-major college basketball recruit less than a year earlier has become one of the most sought-after young players in the world.
Exum has spent much of the past four months working out at the side court at the Open Gym Premier down the road from Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in virtual anonymity. The banners that divide the courts were installed specifically to shield Kobe Bryant from the general public's view when he trains. But those who walk by and see Exum are unaware that this is a future lottery pick -- and potentially a future NBA star.
Renowned trainer Rob McClanaghan, who has worked with the likes of Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Kevin Love, takes Exum through a 90-minute workout in the afternoon on a 90-plus degree May afternoon. The pair has been working together since mid-February, and Exum refuses to take a day off, even electing to bypass a trip to the NBA All-Star Game so as not to disrupt his workout schedule. Exum glides to the basket effortlessly, buries midrange shots with ease and runs from spot to spot with grace and confidence.
"His length is going to be a problem for opponents on both ends," McClanaghan said. "He's got a high basketball IQ, well ahead of his age. He's very calm, and doesn't show much emotion."
Exum misses five straight NBA 3-pointers from the left wing, but there's not a hint of frustration on his face. His expression doesn't change after he drills four consecutive shots from deep on the other side of the floor. "He's so even-keeled," McClanaghan said.
Exum sports no jewelry, no tattoos and no driver's license. He has already signed a lucrative shoe contract with adidas, but admits he hasn't lacked for much in his life and notes how strange it is that "once you get all this money, you don't really need it ... because you get all these free things." It's no surprise the poised and articulate Exum blew away teams during the interview process at May's NBA draft combine thanks to his maturity and quiet confidence.
But Exum remains a question mark. Nearly every GM in the league has laid eyes on him just once -- at the Nike Hoop Summit. That was more than a year ago. Some have never been in attendance to watch him play a 5-on-5 game. They have studied his game on film, seen him jump high and run fast in May at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. Some GMs feel as though taking him would be rolling the dice -- while others aren't overly concerned.
"I do not think it's a risk at all," said one GM who will pick in the top half of the draft. "This kid's upside is tremendous."
Other intriguing, lesser-known international players have been drafted high before -- but never has there been a foreign guard with so much hype and uncertainty. German forward Dirk Nowitzki exploded at the Hoop Summit back in 1998 with 33 points and 14 rebounds and was taken ninth in the draft that year. Kiki VanDeWeghe was the GM of the Denver Nuggets in 2002 when he took unknown 7-foot Georgian Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the fifth pick. It turned out to be one of the biggest busts in NBA history.
"I like being a mystery," says a grinning Exum. "They haven't seen me to pick apart my game -- and they also haven't seen how much better I've gotten in the past year."