clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bask in Dante Exum’s glow up from NBA exile to Dallas Mavericks starter

Jason Kidd said Exum has earned a starting spot, even when the Mavs are back to full strength.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks
Dante Exum #0 of the Dallas Mavericks brings the ball up court during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Center on December 23, 2023 in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The recent Dante Exum phenomenon is apparently here to stay, and we love to see it.

After connecting on his first seven shot attempts, scoring 20 points and pulling down seven rebounds in the Dallas Mavericks’ 144-119 win over the San Antonio Spurs Saturday at the American Airlines Center, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said he’s earned a spot in the starting lineup moving forward.

“You know, it’s ironic. He ended the game [on the floor], and when we got him, that’s kind of the role [Exum fit] — third point guard,” Kidd said in his postgame interview. “But what he’s done is put himself as a starter, and we’ll probably keep him as a starter. If we’re healthy tomorrow, he’s going to start with Kai and Luka.”

Since the Mavs don’t play on Sunday, we wonder whether Kidd’s use of the word “tomorrow” was meant in the theoretical sense, or if he made a simple mistake and meant “the day after tomorrow,” referencing the Mavs next game against the Phoenix Suns on Monday. If the latter is the case, Kidd may have just gifted Mavs fans with a welcome but unintentional injury update on the Kyrie Irving front as an early Christmas present.

We’ll see, and I digress.

Exum has proven himself as a playmaker in his first season back in the NBA after two years playing in Europe. He was drafted fifth overall in the 2014 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, but his minutes declined for each of his five years with the Jazz, and he didn’t amount to much in two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, either. He was widely considered the top prospect of 2014 from outside the United States, but he needed to develop a better outside shot. His first seven years in the NBA were pock-marked with injuries, as well.

Now, more than a third of the way through the 2023-24 season, he’s making Mavs general manager Nico Harrison and VP of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey look like geniuses for taking a chance on him as one of the team’s final off-season roster additions. Lindsey was part of the Jazz front office that originally drafted Exum in 2014.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m starting or coming off of the bench,” Exum said after Saturday’s game. “I think, for me, it’s always going into the game with the same mindset. Obviously, it’s nice to start and be rewarded by that but I want to go in, win every game and play as hard as I can. As long as I’m on the court and I’m able to do that.”

Going into Saturday’s game, Exum led all NBA guards in field goal percentage at 67.1 percent since December 8. True to form, he hit his first seven shots Saturday against the Spurs and finished the night 8-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range. Exum is shooting an eye-popping 63% on his 3-point attempts since he started getting more playing time this month as well.

If and when the Mavs roster ever gets back to full health, Exum would become a welcome third playmaker in the starting lineup alongside Dončić and Irving.

“When you have three ball handlers, I think we’ve figured that philosophy out,” Kidd said. “Having three playmakers in there makes the game easier for Kai and Luka, and it puts a lot of pressure on the [opposing] defense. So to have Exum out there — it helps.”

Putting pressure on the opposing defense is what Exum’s game is all about. He’s one of the guys on this roster who can force a fast pace without losing control of things. That pressure was on full display on the play below from the second quarter when Derrick Jones Jr. took down a defensive rebound and found Exum for a short, quick outlet. Exum, with his eyes immediately up the court, found Tim Hardaway Jr. streaking up the sideline for a vicious slam in transition to cap a possession that took all of five seconds.

“I think one of the things we’ve been saying from the start of the season, since training camp, is that we want to play faster,” Exum said. “I think that gives us [an] opportunity, not just having guys that can dribble the ball up, but guys that are primary ball-handlers that know how to start an offense, create an offense and can get in the paint and create for others. I think that’s real beneficial for our team. I know when Luka is out there, I need to run in transition a bit more.”

It remains to be seen which member of the regular starting lineup Exum may leapfrog, but you’d have to think it would be either Jones or Grant Williams.

Exum is a guy who wants to get to the rim, wants to do the dirty work and has proven his ability to take a weakness in his game and turn it into a strength. You love to see guys like this succeed, and it looks like Mavs fans will have a front-row seat to Exum’s blue-and-green glow up the rest of the season.

And if you were wondering, the contract Exum signed with the Mavs this offseason was a mid-level exception — two years for just over $6.1 million. It certainly looks like a bargain at twice the price right now.