Dante Exum Finally Found His Role In The NBA With The Mavericks

The NBA is typically a one-way door. When a player leaves for another league, it signals that they no longer meet the demands of the league or teams no longer view someone as an NBA-caliber player.

That’s what makes Dante Exum’s reemergence particularly interesting. Exum was taken fifth in the 2014 NBA Draft by Utah as a 6’5, dynamic point guard who could both run the show and fill in the gaps as an off-ball player. Exum never actualized his talent in Utah due to a litany of injuries that took his entire second season and limited his contributions moving forward. He would only play 215 games through five seasons before being traded to Cleveland in 2020, where he would play just 30 games through the 2021 campaign.

In Exum’s first NBA stint, his skills as a disruptive driver who doubled as a connective passer popped off the screen. He also became an infamous point of attack defender in the 2018 playoffs, when Utah deployed the devious plot to defend James Harden from behind on pick-and-roll actions. Utah could only deploy that scheme because Exum was long enough to disrupt Harden and quick enough to potentially get back in front of him on drives. Somewhere in Exum was a high-level basketball player, but injuries mixed with an inconsistent jumper prevented that player from ever coming to fruition.

In 2021, Exum went to the Europe to play for FC Barcelona, where most would assume that he would become a Remember Some Guys All-Star. But something happened while he was abroad: He sharpened his best basketball traits while improving the jumper that plagued him in the NBA. Exum shot 52 percent from on just over one attempt per game in his first EuroLeague season and then followed up by shooting 42 percent on over two attempts per game the following year. The shooting uptick was encouraging, but certainly not a big enough swing to guarantee a return to the NBA.

However, the Dallas Mavericks signed Exum to a minimum deal last offseason after bringing on former Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey as a consultant — Lindsey drafted Exum in 2014 and played a large role in the signing. Entering the season, Exum had a small bench role as the third point guard behind Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. It was unclear as to how much Exum would play due to those two needing the ball and the team’s desire to get reps for young guards Josh Green and Jaden Hardy. But as the season has progressed, Exum has gone from a guy who positively impacts the game in small stretches to an important part of the team’s rotation.

In 13 November games, Exum averaged just 11 minutes a night and shot a pedestrian 26 percent on threes, but he had an 8.7 net rating in his time on the floor. Most importantly, Exum flourished next to Doncic and Irving by initiating sets and allowing both of them to enter their pick-and-roll actions on the move. Dallas has quietly made the offense less taxing on its biggest star by allowing other players to bring the ball up the floor and initiate sets, thereby reducing the amount of time the ball is in Doncic’s hands. Exum, Doncic, and Irving have logged 40 minutes together this season and have a plus-49.8 net rating in that small sample size.

Just as Exum was hitting his stride alongside that duo, the Mavericks were hit with injuries to both Irving and Green, which forced Exum into a secondary ball-handling role. The role elevation led to the best stretch of Exum’s career. In eight December games, Exum is averaging 16.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game on 62 percent from the field and a ridiculous 53 percent on threes. This included a 26-point performance in a nationally televised win against the Lakers where Exum splashed seven threes — the Lakers game planned to leave Exum open and he made them pay.

The three-point shooting has been the headliner for Exum’s game, but he has also shown the finishing skills that made him a top-5 pick. Exum’s length and quickness allowed him to consistently get into the paint early in his career, but he often got into the paint without a plan or didn’t have the strength to finish around the rim. This season, Exum is shooting 73 percent within five feet of the rim. It’s a welcome sight for a Maverick team that struggles to create consistent rim pressure outside of Doncic and Irving. Exum caffeinates the Maverick offense, and when he gets to the rim, it’s a high percentage shot. When Exum is on the floor, the Mavericks pace is 102.75. Last season, they ranked 28th in pace at just 97.2.

Exum won’t maintain his hellfire three-point percentage, but if he can settle into being a consistent option, he has all the tools to be one of the best role players in basketball. He’s a big, high IQ guard who can make both Irving and Doncic better while also filling in if either misses a game. Exum’s first stint in the league didn’t go as plan, but he went to Europe, refined his game, and came back as a player who will have a role in the NBA for some time.