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CHICAGO –– Dante Exum has had an unconventional NBA journey for someone who was drafted No. 5 overall in the 2014 draft. If you took thumbtacks and string to trace his journey on a map, it would look like the most random grouping of cities and countries for a vacation or perhaps the worst couple of days of travel. It's definitely not the journey befitting of a guy who was one of the most intriguing prospects in his draft class.

"I think everyone, once you come in, you have these high hopes," Exum told CBS Sports. "I played 82 [games] my first season, and then didn't play a single game in the second season. So it's definitely hard pulling back expectations."

Exum's career sputtered out of the gates due to injuries, which started with a torn ACL that forced him to miss the entirety of his sophomore season. He showed improvement in his third year, but that progress was swiftly undercut by a lost fourth year, where he needed shoulder surgery after TJ Warren landed on him in a preseason game. Injuries followed him at his next two stops with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets, the latter of which he never played for in a regular season game as he was waived by Houston prior to the start of the 2021-22 season.

"Everyone kind of wants everything right away coming back from injury," Exum said. "The ACL was the hardest thing, and learning that it wasn't gonna happen Game 1, might not even happen in a year. But it's just an adjustment that you have to keep making to get better, and unfortunately for me, every time I found a rhythm, I'd go back down. But it was just about keeping headstrong, and I felt like I belonged here. And obviously, the injuries and just staying healthy was kind of a problem for a lot of teams when free agency came."

After being waived by the Rockets in 2021, Exum found himself without a team, and despite feeling like he belonged in the NBA, the Australian guard found himself playing overseas for Liga ACB powerhouse FC Barcelona.

"When I first went over to Barcelona, everything was always about getting back to the NBA," Exum said. "If I played well it was like I deserve to be back, and when I played bad it was like, oh I'm not going back."

For better or worse, Exum put pressure on himself to show the NBA that he was ready to compete at that level again. And while there was some interest from NBA teams following that year in Spain where he averaged 7.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and shot 49.4% from the field, they were all non-guaranteed contracts. If Exum was going to come back to the NBA, he wanted there to be some financial security.  So he went to Serbia to play for Partizan in the ABA League the following year, where he not only put the thought of making it back to the NBA on the back burner but also averaged the best numbers of his professional career.

Exum put up 12.4 points, three assists and 2.5 rebounds on 53.4% from the field and 41.8% from 3-point range. Perhaps most importantly, he played in over 94% of Partizan's games, showing he can remain healthy for an entire season.

Durability was always the biggest concern prior to Exum heading overseas, but so, too, was his ability to be a scoring threat. That lone season in Serbia served as a breakthrough moment in Exum's career. When you compare his numbers while playing for Partizan to his previous six seasons in the NBA, the efficiency is a stark difference. 

Confidence is what Exum attributes to his improved shooting numbers. After leading Partizan in scoring and helping them claim their first ABA League championship since 2013, the NBA came calling again. Several teams contacted the former lottery pick, but he decided to join the Dallas Mavericks on a two-year, $6.15 million partially guaranteed contract. The first year gives Exum the security he wanted, and while the Mavericks took a risk in signing him, that second year serves as a cushion should things not work out. But so far, he's been an ideal role player for Dallas.


First six NBA seasons (2014-2021)






Partizan (2022-23)






Dallas Mavericks (2023-24)






In 42 games with the Mavericks, Exum's averaging 8.3 points, nearly three assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 55% from the field and 47.4% from deep. Those shooting numbers are on low volume, but he's always averaged around five shots a game, but never on this kind of efficiency. Exum fits in nicely as a third ball handler behind Doncic and Irving, providing Dallas with additional size in the backcourt, as well as someone who can defend multiple positions on the other end.

"He's gone through the lottery pick, being drafted, injuries, maybe being humbled," Kidd said before the Mavericks faced the Timberwolves in December. "It's not a knock to play overseas, but I think for him to do that, to find his game, his confidence and then to have the opportunity to do it again here – you're never promised to be in the NBA. So his work ethic has helped him get back and he's doing everything we thought he could do, if not more."

Exum really showed his value in a stretch of games in December when Irving was sidelined, pushing the Aussie into the starting lineup. Over the 12-game span that Irving was out, Exum averaged 14.4 points, four assists, three rebounds and shot 63.6% from the field and 57.5% from deep. He dropped 20+ points three different times, and his 26 points against the Lakers in early December were the second most points he's scored in the NBA.

But just as Exum began to get into a rhythm, another injury occurred. He missed 22 games across January and February with a plantar fascia sprain in his right foot. Then, later, right knee bursitis, and while Exum says it can be difficult to remain positive when an injury happens, he's been able to have a different perspective on it because of his history.

"It's hard, you don't want to look like an injury-prone guy, but I think you look at my injuries early on, and kind of what they were compared to later on, it was just kind of someone jumped on me and I separated my shoulder," Exum said. "So I think it's a lot of different things. And then you can look at anyone, we play 82 games, you know, night in night out, so there's gonna be a lot of people getting injured. It's just the nature of the sport. And that's kind of what I had to wrap my head around."

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Exum didn't think history was repeating itself when the injuries crept up this season, but he is more diligent with his preparation and listens to his body more than he would've earlier in his career. And unlike his previous injuries, Exum's managed to come back and still make an impact. Though they're not the numbers he was putting up in December, Exum's defense has been important on a team that has been incredibly porous on that end of the floor this season. In his fifth game back from those injuries, Exum dropped 13 points off the bench to help Dallas get a much-needed win over the Miami Heat

In the fourth quarter of that Heat game, it was Exum who led the Mavericks in scoring, first nailing a triple to give the Mavericks the lead with three minutes to go. He then sank a turnaround midrange jumper to extend Dallas' lead with 60 seconds left. Exum capped off that fourth quarter by draining two high-pressure free throws as the Heat were still knocking on the door. The versatility Exum displayed was reminiscent of what we saw earlier in his career and showed why he was so highly touted coming into the draft in the first place. 

"When you look at his calmness, he doesn't panic," Kidd said after that game. "I thought the pace in the second when he came in to be able to help Luka not have to bring the ball up. He also found Luka, got Luka easy shots, and also gave his teammates easy shots. His pace is something that we've missed here, and you can see that today."

If Exum remains healthy for the remainder of the regular season, he's on pace to play 56 games, the most since his rookie season. And while he's logging Year 7 of NBA playing time because of his injuries, this is really only his fourth healthy season in the league. Because of that and the fact that he's still only 28 years old, Exum feels like his best years are still ahead of him.

"These are my prime years," Exum said. "So, yeah, this [part of my career] is where I feel like I'm going to be the strongest and you know, I can just keep improving and getting better from here."