Credit: Rodolfo Molina / Contributor
Credit Rodolfo Molina / Contributor

It was November 26 when FC Barcelona made public that starting point guard Nick Calathes would miss approximately six weeks of action with a broken leg.

Despite the fact that Rokas Jokubaitis and Nicolas Laprovittola leveled up their game, coach Sarunas Jasikevicius was adamant that the only way his squad could keep leading the EuroLeague and ACB standings was by adding one more piece to the puzzle.

That piece was no other than Australian wing Dante Exum, who was officially announced by the Catalan side on December 7. The deal will be valid until February 28, 2022.

The 26-year-old has had a career that has already gone through several "lives". Once considered the next best thing of Australian basketball, Exum played the 2014 World Cup in Spain and then jumped to the NBA, where a series of injuries irreparably hindered his progression.

After playing in the Tokyo Olympic Games with his national team but not finding a roster spot with the Houston Rockets, the Melbourne native came in as a temporary reinforcement for the 2021 EuroLeague finalists.

FC Barcelona occupy first place in the EuroLeague regular season standings (15-3), but Jasikevicius was suddenly left without three of his external references in Alex Abrines, Calathes, and Cory Higgins.

On the other hand, the Australian guard, despite the glimmer of his seven seasons in the NBA, very high pick in the 2014 NBA draft (selected by the Jazz at No.5) and the bronze Olympic medal he won in Tokyo, is a player in search of a career re-start.

Credit REUTERS/Charlie Neibergall-Scanpix

Exum appeared in six games for Cleveland in the 2020-21 season, when he had an expiring $9.6M contract before being sidelined with a calf injury. So, he finished last season with Houston after being acquired in the four-team James Harden trade but didn't play any games for the franchise.

3-pointers this season

41%
9,2
Points made: 9,2
Accuracy: 41,0%
Place in standings: 7
Record max: 14
Record min: 3
Most made 3FGs: Nikola Mirotic

In September, he signed a three-year deal with Houston that had a base value of $8.1M and included another $8M in likely and unlikely incentives. But the contract was non-guaranteed, and the Rockets had 15 other players with guaranteed deals.

Overall, he accumulated 245 NBA games, averaging 5.7 points, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 rebounds per game. That's the least one would expect from a former first-round pick, but the Australian international believes that more NBA chances will come his way.

However, when asked about what went wrong in the NBA for him, Dante Exum is pretty straightforward.

"I think it was the injuries," he told BasketNews from Athens, where Barcelona snatched their 14th EuroLeague victory of the season, and Exum logged 4 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists.

"Every time I had a good roll going and felt comfortable in my role, I'd go down with an injury and find myself out of the rotation. Then, I'd try to fight my way back and go down again. One of the main problems I had was teams worrying about me staying healthy."

Exum had to sit out the 2015-16 season with a torn ACL, an injury he picked up while playing for Australia in Slovenia. He only played in 41 games since 2019, while he has the chance to appear in almost half as many contests in the EuroLeague and the ACB League if he stays healthy.

"Coming over to Europe - and having to play two or three games a week - has been a crazy schedule so far, but it's going to help me stay in shape, take care of my body and get back to where I can play at," he says.

Regardless of where he ended up playing, the Australian basketball league was one of Exum's options before signing with Barcelona. The NBL is a highly competitive league, having recently produced NBA players like LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey.

"It's definitely an option," Exum concedes. "I think it's going to be something later on in my career when I return back home. But for now, I have the ability and the means to go for different experiences," he adds.

Upon signing with FC Barcelona, Exum became the fourth Australian to join the two-time continental champions. David Andersen, the holder of a Danish passport, was the first one to wear the Blaugrana jersey in 2008.

He was followed by Joe Ingles during the 2010-11 season and Nathan Jawai a couple of years later.

"I'd been to Barcelona a couple of times. I also have a couple of teammates, Joe Ingles and Nate Jawai, that played here, and they both loved it," he points out.

"I called Joe Ingles, and he had nothing but good things to say about Barcelona. So, when I was going through my process, I wanted to try a different experience, and it's been great so far."

Exum averages 4.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.0 assist, and 1.0 turnover in 20 minutes over 5 games at Europe's highest level. Barcelona gives him the chance to prove himself in a different environment.

"Once I start getting my offensive game going a little bit, it will give me some good opportunities," Exum utters with confidence.

Despite some lapses here and there, Barcelona boast EuroLeague's best record. Exum is perfectly aware of what that means. "We're on top of the EuroLeague right now. So, we're definitely the team to beat, and hopefully, we can keep it that way," he stresses.

For a player who had only gotten a taste of international (a.k.a. non-NBA) basketball only in FIBA tournaments, Europe clearly offers a different perspective on the way the sport is played.

"European basketball and the NBA are 100% different," he argues.

"The paint is clogged up a bit more over here. We play through the post a lot more than in the NBA, which is a lot of a guard game. Here, it's more about the big guys. But it's an adjustment, and I'm having a good time."

Speaking of a good time, Exum has played with Barcelona in the Spanish El Clasico against Real Madrid and visited Belgrade and Athens to face Crvena Zvezda and Panathinaikos.

Asked about the atmosphere in European courts, Exum promptly responds, letting out a whiff of air.

"It's different, I'll tell you that," he comments before going into detail. "Some of the guys I had talked to called them two of the best spots to play at in Europe. I can say that they didn't disappoint at all."

"Belgrade was unbelievable, and Athens was crazy. I caught myself looking back at the crowd, staring at them as they were cheering for the whole game. It was a good environment, but we stuck together as a team," he added.

Looking at the three-month deal that Exum landed in Barcelona, one can assume that the Australian point guard opted for a shorter contract in Europe because he's still hoping to resume his NBA career. In other words, a win-win situation for the seven-year veteran.

Through Barca, he can explore the opportunity to get back in game rhythm while also leaving a window open for a potential return to the NBA since the deal will be up before NBA playoff rosters are finalized.

Exum has no reason to deny it. "Yeah, I think that's the plan," he firmly responds. "Looking at the injuries Barcelona had and my goal to go back to the NBA, it made sense for me to sign here.

I've got three months, and hopefully, I can keep growing by getting better defensively and finding a place offensively."

Conversely, he almost rules out any possibility of staying with Barcelona throughout the season.

"Right now, I'm just playing it week by week, making sure that my game improves and that I'm staying healthy. That's the biggest plan right now," he responds.

Last summer, Exum played a prominent role on Australia's bronze medal-winning squad at the Tokyo Olympics, averaging 9.0 points and 2.8 assists per game.

It's an experience he will always cherish. "The Olympics were amazing. I think that whenever I put on the green and yellow uniform, it's like playing something different," he exclaims in delight.

"We've created a brotherhood, and I can't wait for the next Olympics. When in Tokyo, I kept saying: "I can't wait for Paris!". Even though we got the bronze, I think we could have definitely gotten the silver or the gold medal.

We just slipped up on one game. That said, we've got that pressure off us, and now it's that gold medal that we're striving for."

As Klay Thompson is set to re-join the high-flying Golden State Warriors roster following his participation in five-on-five scrimmages, one cannot overlook Dante Exum's contribution to the American shooting guard's recovery process.

The former NBA player was among Thompson's first five-on-five games after being waived by the Houston Rockets on the eve of the NBA season.

Thompson hasn't appeared in an NBA game since June 2019, succumbing to back-to-back injuries since then. Prior to the 2020-21 season tip-off, he tore his right Achilles during the final stages of rehab for an injury to his left ACL, which he had picked up during the 2019 NBA Finals.

However, Exum thinks that the 31-year-old guard will get back on track at 100 percent. "Playing five-on-five with him was really good. I guarded him, and he's looking good, moving well," he contends.

"Obviously, he can shoot the ball lights out. So, I have no doubt that he'll get back to where he was."

Let's see if Dante Exum can do the same.

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Dante Exum

Dante  Exum
Team: FC Barcelona
Position: PG
Age: 26
Height: 198 cm
Weight: 86 kg
Birth place: Melbourne, Australia