Dante Exum's second act with the Dallas Mavericks is going very well

Dante Exum's signing with the Mavericks was looked over. Now? He's one of the main difference-makers in the team's best stretch of the season.

Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks
Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks / Tim Heitman/GettyImages

The stars were playing at full force in one of the most marquee matchups of the regular season — a Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a close game where all three did their thing in a nationally televised encounter, with the Lakers coming off an In-Season Tournament win facing a Mavericks team that had won three in a row.

Davis (37 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks) dominated the Mavs' bigs, a continuation of a monster eight-game stretch where he's averaging 26.9 points with 13.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 54.8 shooting from the field. James (33 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds) continued to defy all previously known basketball logic by playing at an All-NBA level at 38 years old (39 at the end of the month). Doncic (33 points, 17 assists, 6 rebounds) kept doing it all for one of the league's top five offenses, and he had Tim Hardaway Jr (32 points) by his side continuing to have a great season (17.7 points on 39 percent from 3).

But, it was a different name that defined the game, one that, in an ideal world, wouldn't be in this position for Dallas. With Kyrie Irving, Josh Green, Derrick Jones Jr. and Maxi Kleber all out with injury, the Mavericks had to go deep into their rotation to find pieces to defend multiple positions at a high level, knock down shots and make plays off of Doncic.

They got all those qualities in Dante Exum, who continued his tremendous recent play with a 17-point fourth quarter on 6-of-8 shooting from the field (5-of-7 from beyond the arc), the majority coming on spot-up opportunities at the end of the shot clock. He has bailed them out with an improved outside shot (career-high 40.5 percent from 3 this season) with the Lakers ignoring him on defense to opt to send an extra body at Doncic. He ultimately made them pay in a 127-125 victory, ending up with 26 points in total, his highest-scoring output since 2020 and being propelled to mainstream attention nationally for the first time in many years.

From draft bust to impactful role player on a succesful team

When Exum was drafted, fifth overall in the 2014 draft by the Utah Jazz, he was thought of as a potential franchise point guard. The Australian guard came into a rebuilding Jazz that had a new coach in Quin Snyder and entered the season with Gordon Hayward as the face of the franchise and a young core of sophomore guards — Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks.

Despite those high expectations, he was coming off the bench in the first half of the season, and could never put it together on offense. He averaged just 4.8 points on bad shooting (34.9 percent from the field on 5.1 attempts, 31.4 percent from 3). In the following seasons, his lack of shooting and explosive creation on the ball led him to further struggle, and injuries limited him severely in the next three seasons.

He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2019. Two years later, he was playing in Europe.

After two seasons overseas, he signed with the Mavericks and got sporadic minutes through the team's first eight games. With consistently good outings, his minutes were then in the double digits for eight of the next nine games and he got his first start in a 50-point win over the Jazz (ironic), in which he started in place of an injured Grant Williams. He kept that spot the next game against the Portland Trail Blazers and had to play even more after Kyrie Irving left the game in the second quarter after Dwight Powell landed on his leg. He stepped up big time, scoring 23 points on 9-of-15 from the field with 7 assists and 6 rebounds. It was 'next-man-up mentality', as it's practically been all season for them, and he was able to shine.

But he's continued his excellent output — in the last three games, counting the ones against the Blazers and Lakers, Exum averaged 21.7 points, 5.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and one steal on 63.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from 3 (on five attempts per game). His best stretch of play has coincided with the team's best stretch since the start of the season, a four-game winning streak.

Can Dante Exum keep this up?

As opposed to the start of his career, Exum isn't tasked with the burden of being a game changer. While his contributions have been good for the team's recent success, a team led by Doncic is capable of winning with other role players knocking down shots. He was signed on a minimum deal with minimum pressure to have to perform. And he entered a dream scenario as a struggling offensive player, joining a team with Luka and Kyrie, two of the best one-on-one creators the game has ever seen, and a duo that is starting to mesh really well together. All he needed to do was not be terrible on open catch-and-shoot looks, attack closeouts, make good passes, and defend. And, to his credit, he's done all of that and more.

Of course, it should also be noted that it's a small sample size, and it's the start of the season. On the flip side, one could argue his recent great performances have been against bad teams (Utah, Portland, Memphis). The one that wasn't, his recent one against Los Angeles, came with them just ignoring him. It still takes skill to finish those plays, and I certainly give him credit for improving in order to do that, but it's a fair argument.

These next games will be telling in how much of this good play can be maintained: three of Dallas' next five games are against top five defenses this season (Minnesota Timberwolves tonight, Los Angeles Clippers on the 20th and the Houston Rockets on the 22nd), and the Denver Nuggets (Dic. 18) have a top 10 defense of their own. Not only are these good defenses, but the scouting report on Exum leaguewide will change if he continues to play well. He won't be getting left as open, and the closeouts and recoveries on him will be harder (and made by better defenders). Teams will be more aggressive against him when he has the ball on his hands, hoping to be physical and force him to struggle like at the start of his career.

It'll be interesting to see if he continues to be used after the Mavericks get healthy. He's mainly taking the minutes from Josh Green, who has missed the last five, and the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr., who've been in and out of the lineup. Maxi Kleber has also been out since the start of November, another two-way wing that Exum has replaced. When the team is healthy, the competition for minutes will be between Green and Exum, seeing has both have similar roles when they're on the court (defend multiple positions, finish plays and occasionally create on-ball). Exum has been lights out recently and he has a court vision that Green doesn't, so he could be winning the position battle right now, but he'll need to keep it up.

Whatever the case is, I'm happy to see someone that was once considered a draft 'bust' have his moment of glory in the NBA, no matter how long it took. Exum has rebounded after being a bench warmer, becoming a star in Europe and parlaying that into what could be an extended second act in the NBA at just 28 years old.

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