A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
Behind the closed doors of North Carolina's Carmichael Auditorium, away from the cameras and the crowds, Cecil Exum did his best work. From 1980--81 to '83--84, the rugged 6'6" forward averaged just 1.5 points as a Tar Heels reserve. But in practice? That's when Exum shone. He went head-to-head with Michael Jordan and told 6'9" James Worthy he would "never, ever" dunk on him. "And you can ask James," says Exum. "He never did."
Nearly 30 years later and 10,000 miles away in Melbourne, Australia, Exum is still talking about practice, and his audience—specifically his 18-year-old son, Danté—is paying attention. When Danté asks his dad about playing at Chapel Hill with two Hall of Famers, about the heartbreak of losing to Indiana in the 1981 national championship game or the joy of winning the title a year later, Cecil invariably shifts the conversation to those scrimmages. "He talks about the competitiveness," says Danté. "That's the one thing he would say about Jordan and Worthy, that they always wanted to win."
That same feral spirit lives in Danté who grew up playing one-on-one in the front yard with his older brother, Jamaar. When Danté lost, he would rush into the backyard, tears welling in his eyes, asking Cecil when he would finally win. "All these games against your brother are going to make you better," Cecil told him. "Someday you will be beating him." That started to happen when Danté was in his early teens. By 16, he was beating Cecil too. "I used to try to intimidate him, make him beat me with outside shots," laughs Cecil. "He started making them. Then I knew I was in trouble."
At 6'6" and 190 pounds Danté is a sweet blend of speed and power, a combo guard who's deadly off the dribble and from the outside. Think a more polished Michael Carter-Williams. Says draft analyst Fran Fraschilla, "The best players everyone is talking about in college basketball, guys like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker—Danté is as good as any of them." Soon, Exum, who recently finished his academic studies at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, will have to choose between playing next season at a U.S. college or becoming a lottery pick. "It's been a crazy year," says Danté. "Six or seven months ago I didn't even know I could enter the NBA draft next year. It feels good to be noticed. I always wondered who was watching."
CECIL EXUM speaks with a thick Southern drawl tinged with an Australian accent. In 1987, Cecil finished a season in Sweden and had two options: join a team in Japan or migrate to Australia to suit up in the country's National Basketball League. "I had just played in a foreign-language-speaking country," says Cecil. "I really wanted to go someplace where they spoke English."
So Cecil and his wife, Desirée, headed Down Under. Cecil not only found success in the NBL—in 1992 he averaged 17.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.5 blocks for the Geelong Supercats—but over seven seasons he also fell in love with the country. In 1993, Jamaar was born. In '95, the Exums welcomed twins, Danté and Tierra. When Cecil retired a year later, the family settled in Melbourne. "We just liked the lifestyle," says Cecil. "Melbourne is a metropolitan city without any of the crime."
Even in a country mad for cricket and Aussie rules football, the boys gravitated toward hoops. Cecil guided both of them as a coach for a junior basketball league, and he saw something special in Danté. In 2010 the AIS team traveled to China for as part of an exhibition tour that featured a U.S. team stacked with ex-college players. Against the U.S., the 15-year-old Exum poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter alone, including a three that sent the game into overtime. After returning home, the team's coach, Ian Stacker, called Cecil. "I said, 'Mate, I think we have got something here,' " recalls Stacker. "He played the most amazing quarter of basketball that I have ever seen."
Fraschilla caught Exum last April, at the Nike Hoops Summit, where against a U.S. team featuring Randle, Parker, Aaron Gordon and Andrew Harrison, Exum scored 16 points in 22 minutes off the bench. "He played so instinctively," says Fraschilla. "He decides at the last second what he wants to do and can do it effortlessly." Last July, in front of NBA executives at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Prague, Exum dropped 33 on Spain in the quarterfinals. "He's in the same league as Wiggins," says a Western Conference assistant GM. "He's got an incredible first step. You give him the ball anywhere and he will be able to create."
Stacker calls Exum "very coachable" and cites his willingness to overhaul his jump shot. When Exum got to AIS he would swing the ball out and lift it high above his forehead before firing. In the last year, Exum has tightened his form. At the U-17 World Championships in Lithuania in 2012, Exum shot 17.1% from three-point range. In Prague last summer, Exum connected on 33.3% of his treys. "Some players resist change, particularly when it comes to shooting," says Stacker. "Danté embraces challenges."
EXUM HAS a list of colleges he is considering—Oregon, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and, of course, North Carolina—but entering next June's NBA draft is still a strong option. And everyone has an opinion on what he should do. In August, Chris Anstey, a three-year NBA veteran and coach of the NBL's Melbourne Tigers, urged Exum to go pro now rather than risk injury in college.
"I think college would be a good place to develop and get some experience," says Exum—but he's also fascinated by the NBA game. Last summer he sought advice from Luc Longley, an Aussie center who played 10 seasons in the NBA. "His main message was that the NBA is a grown man's game," says Exum. "It's not just basketball. It's a business. If you're not playing well, they are looking to trade. You have to understand that."
Some NBA executives who have studied Exum believe he can go straight to the league. "The guys he is playing against over there play physical," says a second Western Conference executive. "He'll be more ready than most college players." Though the execs are eager to see Exum in individual workouts—"There is going to be a scarcity of information until then," says a Western Conference GM, citing the likelihood that Exum will not play competitively again to avoid injury—all think he could go as high as the top three. "He is a more aggressive version of Nicolas Batum," says an Eastern Conference GM. "He plays unselfishly, but he has the ability to take over a game in an instant."
For now Exum is just enjoying the moment. Kid stuff, watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns ("I like Will Smith," says Exum) and playing Assassin's Creed. Cecil says that any discussion about Danté's future has been tabled for now and that Danté will likely decide something by "late January, early February." In the meantime, he won't continue to hammer home the need to practice. The message, he knows, has already been received.
Danté Exum is going a long way.
From now through the end of the college and pro football seasons, and leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will regularly feature the most intriguing on-the-climb athletes across all its platforms. Look for the latest episode, on Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, on your computer or mobile device at SI.com/risingstars
WORLD-BEATERS Exum (7) and Wiggins reset the boundaries of what U.S. opponents can expect in global competition.
JAY LAPRETE/AP (SHAZIER)
COURTESY OF UNC ATHLETICS (CECIL EXUM)
FAMILY PRACTICE Cecil took on two future Hall of Famers at Chapel Hill, then passed on what he learned to his son.