On Thursday night a new class of millionaires will have their moment in the spotlight even as some will not succeed at the NBA level. That is the harsh truth of the NBA Draft which is part luck and part science. But in the glare of the lights of the Barclays Center, on Thursday night projected success and unanticipated failure will take a backseat as childhood dreams come true. In succession, players will take the stage, shake Adam Silver’s hand, look into the camera, smile and attach a NBA cap to their head as their parents shed tears.
But before the camera lights turn on and before the audience gathers in Brooklyn for the NBA Draft and before players know their fate, there is a lot of hype and bias and there is a lot of truth and there are some lies. In these last few days leading to the draft, in the hours of sweat and toil, NBA teams, who work tireless hours in an effort to come to a consensus on who to draft, accept that nothing is written in stone. Names are erased. Players’ positions fall. Teams just change their mind. There is always some sort of chaos, something unpredictable to throw everyone off.
This year it was medical news delivered by Cleveland Cavaliers doctors after they examined Joel Embiid. Embiid is thought be in the mold of Hakeem Olajuwon, an athletic big man with superb foot work, ball handling skills, leadership and gifted instincts around the rim. The Cavs doctors discovery of a stress fracture in Embiid’s foot sent the 2014 NBA Draft into a free-fall where anything can happen on Thursday night now that Embiid is certainly out for 6 months, maybe for the rest of the year, and will not be the #1 pick though his agents are trying to maneuver him into a top 5 pick.
But the landscape is no longer the same. Jabari Parker could be the direct beneficiary. Jabari could be the #1 pick or #2 or #3. Andrew Wiggins could be #1, #2, or #3. Dante Exum could go as high as #3 or fall farther than the #4 he was predicted to be.
The irony of Joel Embiid’s broken foot is that his stress fracture did what all those white lottery balls could not do: it may in fact have delivered the Lakers a top 4 player in the NBA Draft. Before Embiid’s injury, Dante Exum was slated at #4 which was based on his performances in international competition and the eye test. He is a 6-6 point guard who is explosive and can get into the paint. But his last game was nearly a year ago in high school in Australia. Ranking him above college players would be to rank athleticism over experience, mystery over the NCAA tournament.
Because no one has seen him play against quality competition on a weekly basis, Dante Exum’s narrative seems romantic and without flaws. He has not had his game picked apart, his personality examined for vulnerabilities and weaknesses, his character put beneath a microscope. What there is to know are the basics. He has long arms and quickening speed and the sort of athleticism NBA teams covet. He is a transition player who can get into the paint and is a good ball handler.
The Lakers had hoped their miserable season would pay off and they would get a top 4 pick in the NBA Draft so they could snag Exum. He has “star” written all over him even though he is just 18. The Lakers see him as a player for their future, someone similar to Kobe Bryant who came in at 18 and was better each year until he was great. Since March, Dante Exum has been tirelessly working on his jump shot with his trainers who he has won over with his dedication, work ethic and basketball i.q. Exum wowed NBA executives with his poise, maturity and demeanor at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago as he spoke about his past and what he hopes for his future. Drafting Dante Exum in this era of delayed gratification isn’t the outlier it once was when the Lakers drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996. The NBA is a league where the talented thrive and Dante is talented. But to what end? What is his skill level? The questions are more about his weight- he is super skinny- and his age and his ability to handle NBA level competition with his inexperience.
Dante Exum’s father played at North Carolina with Michael Jordan and James Worthy and then went to Australia to complete his professional career. Exum sees himself as a point guard even though he is 6-6 which often makes people think he is a shooting guard. He has a twin sister and an older brother who he credits with honing his competitive drive. His older brother would beat him in basketball until he couldn’t. Exum is thoughtful and calm and is not affected, so far, by all of the reality show drama of the NBA industrial hype complex and draft marketing and mock drafts and who might take him where. Driven by personal goals to be a great player, he consistently adheres to a workout schedule and ignores much of the buzz of his mysterious ascendance into this class of college freshman and sophomores.
The Lakers had no shot at Exum two weeks ago. But Embiid’s injury reworked everyone’s draft board. A team like Orlando, who nurtured Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard and have experience with big men, may in fact scrap their Dante Exum plan and draft Embiid. Or, they may draft Marcus Smart, a tough, physical player who likes to get to the rim, to compliment Victor Oladipo’s perimeter style. If Exum isn’t picked 3rd or 4th, (Philadlephia, Orlando), the Lakers have a chance at drafting the Aussie. Utah at #5 are leaning towards Noah Vonleh or Aaron Gordon. The Celtics at #6 like Aaron Gordon or Julius Randle or Joel Embiid.
Or Dante Exum may be available and the Lakers go the other way, they play it safe with Marcus Smart or Julius Randle. Both Smart and Randle are good players that can play extended minutes right now. They would be valued additions. But neither have the “superstar” label that many draft analysts see in Dante Exum down the road. So in a sense the question is how far are the Lakers willing to go replicate the Kobe Bryant experience, how willing are they to look towards the future and not right now. They did so in 1996. Would they do it again in 2014?