Brooklyn, N.Y. • Dante Exum didn’t really expect to be there.
For months, the Australian point guard had been projected to be one of the first players taken, certainly off the board by the time the Orlando Magic would pick at No. 4.
But Exum knew the label attached, and was braced for the possibility that it might cost him a spot or two.
“I was the mystery in this draft,” he said. “I could drop.”
The Utah Jazz are elated he did.
As the first picks of Thursday’s NBA draft went up on the board — Andrew Wiggins to Cleveland, Jabari Parker to Milwaukee, Joel Embiid to Philadelphia — Exum sat at his table, waiting for a phone call and a hat. And when the Magic took Arizona forward Aaron Gordon at No. 4, the first real surprise of the draft, the Jazz scooped up Exum with the fifth overall pick.
Utah rounded out its draft by taking Duke’s Rodney Hood, a player the team coveted, with the 23rd overall pick. With its second-round pick, the Jazz drafted Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes before trading him to Memphis for a 2016 second-round pick, according to reports.
But for the Jazz on Thursday, Exum was the prize.
In Salt Lake City, where fans gathered at Energy Solutions Arena to watch the draft, there were cheers as Gordon’s name was called and even louder cheers for Exum.
For the Jazz, this is the silver lining for enduring one of the worst seasons in franchise history — 57 losses in all. And after seeing the pingpong balls bounce unfavorably at last month’s lottery, pushing the Jazz back to the fifth pick, it’s a moment most didn’t think would happen.
“You know, it’s an unbelievable experience,” said Exum, dressed in a gray three-piece suit and sporting a Utah Jazz cap. “Words can’t explain. It’s just great.”
Exum, who won’t turn 19 until next month, is indeed a mystery outside of basketball circles. But inside them, he’s considered by some to be a potential superstar, a long, athletic guard who could change a franchise’s fortunes.
Exum’s father, Cecil, played college basketball at North Carolina in the early ’80s, a reserve on a championship team that featured Michael Jordan and James Worthy. He was drafted into the NBA, but made his living playing in Australia.
Exum looked at U.S. colleges, taking a visit to Indiana before opting to stay in Australia. He split last season between the Australian Institute of Sport and a regimen of workouts in Los Angeles.
He’s played only a smattering of five-on-five since then and hasn’t faced major competition since last year’s U-19 World Championships, where he helped the Aussies upset top-ranked Spain and earned all-tournament honors.
But all along, Exum has wowed scouts with his size and ability.
At the pre-draft combine, he measured 6-foot-41/2 without shoes and had a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He had a 34.5-inch vertical leap and impressed in agility drills.
He’s a big guard who likes to push the pace, who knows how to penetrate and finish at the rim.
“It’s a run-and-gun game, up-tempo game, finding players,” Exum said of his style.
The Jazz, meanwhile, are somewhat of a mystery to Exum.
“I haven’t seen a lot of Utah,” he said. “Over in Australia that’s not one of the teams we see. We only get three games a week. So I’m excited to learn what their culture is about and the rich history they’ve had.”
Exum declined to work out for the Jazz in the weeks leading up to the draft because he sees himself as a point guard, and saw a second-year starter in Trey Burke on the roster. But on Thursday the Australian guard sounded optimistic about the tandem.
Burke was at Barclay’s Center and spoke with Exum briefly after he was drafted.
“He’s excited to have me,” Exum said, “and I’m excited to be there. I know we’re both going to give up something a little so everyone’s happy.”
And Exum believes new Jazz coach Quin Snyder has the right stuff to help them co-exist.
“I think the coach being a point guard, he’s going to know how to utilize me and Trey,” he said.
Along the way, Exum hopes to develop into a franchise player, an All-Star, a superstar.
Something other than the unknown.
“It’s been frustrating being that mystery and having that label on me,” he said. “But I’m past it now. Hopefully when I get out in summer league I can show them I’m not that mystery anymore.”