I think Dante Exum is the only new addition to the Dallas Mavericks’ roster that we haven’t talked about much here. But he is probably the one I got the most excited about when I heard of his signing. I’m pretty sure I tweeted something insanely hyperbolic, as is my custom, but I can’t find it right now, and I’ve cooled down (though only slightly) since then.
And, yes, I know I got similarly psyched when the Mavs brought in Frank Ntilikina in 2021, and I know there is a better-than-good chance that this goes the same way. Ntilikina had his moments, but they were only moments. They rarely even added up to a full game. More like a few plays here and there, maybe a quarter, very occasionally a half. He never really stuck in the lineup during his time in Dallas, either due to injury or ineffectiveness or some secret third (likely Jason Kidd-related) thing.
Exum and Ntilikina do share a somewhat similar profile, at least during Exum’s first tour of the NBA: foreign-born high-lottery picks who are great on defense, offensively challenged, and never fulfilled their potential. So why do I think it could be different this time around?
How about: Exum is better? I don’t know how much statistical analysis you want here, guys. I’m just eye-testing it, but Exum is a bigger, tougher defender who can defend bigger, tougher wings. He’s got quick feet, quicker hands, great technique, and a motor that revs higher than a Lamborghini Huracán. He could chest pass the ball directly to Don Knobler in the front row every time he touches the ball on offense and still deserve rotation minutes.
Exum, however, is also much more skilled on offense than Ntilikina. (Maybe add one “more” and possibly half of another “much.”) I know this is culled from his time in Europe, but still: seems pretty OK, no? The creative and powerful finishing at the rim, the secondary ballhandler potential, the spot-up shooting, the Australian-ness—he could be another Josh Green. Wouldn’t we all like another Josh Green?
The Mavs have the primary scoring taken care of, between Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. They need more guys like Exum, who can get the ball back in their hands and then, when/if it comes to him, doesn’t make the entire fanbase tense up like they’re 30 seconds into a plank hold. Someone who can beat their defender off the dribble when the ball swings around, who is at least enough of a threat to shoot to keep everyone honest, who doesn’t need the ball but isn’t scared of it, either.
Based on his time in Europe—where he helped Partizan win the ABA League championship last season—and the flashes he showed in the NBA before leaving, Exum can be one of those players. Will he get a chance to show it? Depends on how his training camp goes. Depth-chart-wise, he’s obviously behind Doncic and Irving, and Green and Jaden Hardy, presumably, and probably Seth Curry, too, and then he’s jockeying for minutes with maybe O-Max Prosper, who is younger and a higher priority. Not exactly a guaranteed role.
But it is August. It’s time for dreaming, or at least hoping, or maybe just deluding ourselves. And that brings me around to why I was excited about Exum to begin with, and not just because I remember the tantalizing possibilities of his defensive disruption from his previous stint in the league. Exum is exactly the kind of player the Mavs need to hit on with a top-heavy roster, and exactly the kind of player they used to hit on.
Actually, he takes care of two archetypes that have filled out some of Dallas’ most successful squads: a player trying to come over (or come back) from Europe and the prized prospect who might need a change of scenery. Dorian Finney-Smith is the most recent success story, but every good Mavs team in the past two decades have had one or two of these guys, players who didn’t really work anywhere else, for whatever reason, but that the coaches and support staff managed to turn into proper members of the rotation and sometimes more. The 2011 championship roster had DeShawn Stevenson and Corey Brewer, for example, but you probably have fond memories of Brandon Bass, Brandan Wright, or perhaps even Raymond Felton from other stints.
All the other moves the organization has made thus far this offseason have (correctly) gotten more attention. But bringing Exum back from Europe on a low-cost, low-pressure deal is what has really given me faith that they are building this thing the right way. It’s the kind of move smart teams make. No one has to delude themselves about that.