FOR ONCE, THE man who buried the nail in the coffin in the Dallas Mavericks’ win over the LA Lakers this week wasn’t Luka Doncic. It wasn’t even Kyrie Irving—who’s out with an injury—or even veteran Tim Hardaway Jnr. It was Aussie Dante Exum, who capped a career night for the Mavericks with 26 points including seven 3s, while shooting 8-10 from the field. He also had four rebounds, three assists, one block and a steal in 36 minutes as starter. Say it quietly for now, but Exum is back.
The 28-year-old journeyman, who is known more for his tenacious defence, had only hit eight 3s all season before hitting seven against the Lakers alone. The Mavericks are on a 4-0 winning streak, and while most of the credit for that goes to Doncic, who’s averaging 35.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 11.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks in December, Exum, who returned to the NBA this season after playing overseas for the previous two years, has definitely played his part. Over his last three games, Exum is averaging 21.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists. And the Mavs are also 4-0 when he starts.
Son of former US NBL import Cecil Exum, Dante was drafted no.5 in the 2014 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz. His career got off to a solid start, playing all 82 games as a rookie, scoring in double figures in 13 games and leading the team in assists 11 times. It was good enough to be selected in the 2015 Rising Stars Challenge during that year’s All-Star weekend.
But in August 2015, Exum tore the ACL in his left knee while playing for the Boomers in Slovenia. He underwent surgery and subsequently missed the entire 2015–16 season. Subsequent injuries to his shoulder, ankle and knee (again) robbed his career of momentum. He was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2019 and then to the Houston Rockets but was waived without playing any regular season games.
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The sun looked to have set on Exum’s NBA career. He signed with FC Barcelona in 2021, then Partizan NIS Belgrade in the ABA League in 2022, where he averaged 13.2 points, 2.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, helping the team claim the ABA championship.
Exum also made an impact during the Boomers’ 2021 Tokyo Olympics campaign, scoring or assisting on 13 of Australia’s points in the pivotal 20–8 run that turned a five-point lead into a 17-point advantage in the bronze medal game.
“I think for me it’s been a long journey,” Exum said upon joining the Mavs prior to the season. “Obviously, being in the NBA before and having kind of dealt with a lot of injuries, I felt like I’ve had the skills to be here. But proving my health has kind of been the problem.
“But I think going over to Europe and spending the last two seasons there helped me tremendously learning their game and how they play and just kind of the importance of valuing possessions. I’m glad I was able to kind of fight my way back here, but I think it’s just staying and making sure every day I’m working on my game and in the areas that haven’t been a strong suit and making that a strong suit now.”
A rangy shooting guard, Exum possess elite athleticism and is a lockdown defender, famously giving James Harden all he could handle back in the 2018 playoffs. He now appears to have developed his shot, which along with a tighter handle, is making him a potent offensive threat. He was left pretty open against the Lakers; that probably won’t be the case going forward.
“Tonight, they kind of left me wide-open,” said Exum after the game. “Those are the shots I have to keep shooting if they’re going to play me like that. I’m a driver, but if they’re going to stand three feet off me, I’m going to shoot it. So I like to get in the paint and cause defences to collapse and kick out to the open guy. But obviously, I’m going to do whatever the defence gives me.”
After signing Exum to a veteran minimum deal over the offseason, the Mavs appear to have come away with a major steal. And with Ben Simmons struggling with injury and Josh Giddey’s play levelling off under the glare of the investigation into his personal life, the case is there to be made that Exum is the best Aussie in the league right now.
If he continues to play like he has over this recent stretch, he’ll greatly improve the Mavericks’ chances of a play-off berth, and probably force his way onto the Boomers’ starting five come the Paris Olympics. That’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Remaining injury free while being a solid contributor . . . that’s plenty for now.