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The Dante Exum theory: Why surrounding Luka Dončić with players who have high-level European experience is a winning recipe

If you want to contend, you need high IQ players, who are used to playing under pressure and can move off-ball. Enter Europeans and players with high-level European experience 

Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

What if Luka Dončić, raised in very European-style systems in Madrid and Slovenia, was surrounded by dynamic, high-IQ players, who had the ability to move off-ball and weren’t afraid of the moment?

Players, who were able to read the game and know when to stand in the corner, and when to cut to the basket to bail a teammate out in the paint for an easy bucket?

Players, who regularly in their careers have been exposed to the loud and sometimes very aggressive pressure of a full European arena. Experience that has taught them to rise to the occasion, not fear the spotlight, and live for the opportunity to prove the haters wrong.

If this sounds a little bit like Luka Dončić to you, you’re right. But this also is a description of most players who have had extensive experience on a high-level team in Europe - a team that plays in the EuroLeague.

These players have this type of experience almost every time they step on the court:

Playing in this atmosphere changes you. It makes you shrink or grow, and the players who have been successful here, can be successful anywhere, in my opinion.

This footage is from a derby game between Serbian rivals Partizan and Crvena Zvezda. Partizan happens to be the team Dante Exum played on in Europe just last year, before the Dallas Mavericks signed him, and this is the atmosphere he was accustomed to playing in last season. Can you imagine what that does to a player?

Born and raised in Australia, Dante Exum was drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2014, and also spent time on the Cleveland Cavaliers before going to Europe in 2021. He spent 2014-2021 in the NBA, but his just two years on top European teams saw an incredible growth from him, among other things shooting the three. He spent a year in Barcelona and a year on the Serbian Partizan team. It left him ready for a rotation spot and even starting the last four games for the Mavericks this season. The team is right now 4-0 when Exum starts, by the way.

His consistent play, steady hand and ability to lead the offense, and involve his teammates both in the half court, but also pushing in transition, has made people pay attention. Deservedly so.

He has a clear calming presence on this team, and his confidence and consistency leading the offense, when Luka and Kyrie Irving are out, is something we have not seen on the Mavericks for a long time.

Even playing the three, as he has done a couple of times as a starter, has looked great. Especially next to Luka, where he has been a very efficient release valve, when Luka has been doubled.

Exum is a great example of how a player with high-level experience in Europe can bring value to an NBA team. European basketball is a great place to develop role players, to help them understand their role and how to contribute in the best way possible.

That’s what we’re seeing from Exum right now. The fact that defenses don’t pay as much attention to him as they do Kyrie Irving, he is sometimes able to play next to Luka in a more effective way, his style of play meshing with Luka Dončić really well.

As MavsMoneyball’s Josh Bowe recently pointed out, having a player that’s more than a standstill, spot-up shooter next to Luka and Kyrie makes such a difference.

And head coach Jason Kidd agrees:

“His basketball IQ is extremely high. He know how to play, he’s not afraid of the moment and you can see that. He’s attacking, getting to the basket and making plays. And when you have a third ball handler like Dante it just makes the game so much easier for Kai and Luka.”

Being able to think on your feet is a great skill to have next to Luka. Just standing there waiting for the ball to get to you so you can shoot is just not good enough anymore. For a team to compete at this point, you have to have players, who can read the game, put the ball down and create for themselves and others.

Sasha Vezenkov, the reigning EuroLeague MVP, who’s in his first NBA year with the Kings this season, is another good example of how a European style player can be very valuable for an NBA team, as the league is requiring more of shooters than just being able to catch and shoot. His minutes with the Kings are increasing, little by little, as he proves to the coach how he can bring value with his off-ball movement, cutting and efficiency.

As the league is changing and developing, and the best defenses now are able to adjust to shooting-heavy offenses pretty easily, it makes the stagnant, iso-heavy offense a bad idea if you want to contend. Living and dying by the three is too risky, and if you don’t have players who can put the ball down when needed and think on their feet, there’s just not enough variation offensively to win against good teams or in a seven-game series.

Dynamic and high IQ players, like Dante Exum in Dallas and Sasha Vezenkov in Sacramento, will hopefully become more of a norm on NBA teams in the coming years - if coaches and FO’s realize the potential and value they bring.

I think there’s a good chance we will see a rise in experienced European role players arriving to the NBA in the future, and this type of player being more acknowledged and important on NBA teams.

As the leagues around the world are developing, the influx and flow of players back and forth bring a new dimension and evolution to the game. It should be the goal of everyone who loves basketball to learn from the best leagues around the world, in order to get the best product possible. And with the next generation of American and international players making a mark, and perhaps being the most talented in history, it’s just a matter of keeping up. The future is already here.

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