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Before he put on his Utah Jazz jersey for the first time, before he walked across the stage on draft night, before he filmed his first television commercials, Dante Exum had his coming-out party in Portland.
Now, as the rookie returns to Pacific Northwest for Thursday's preseason rematch with the Trail Blazers, Exum can hardly believe how much things have changed for him since the last time he set foot on the court at Moda Center.
"I never thought I would get to this point this quick," the 19-year-old Australian said this week. "It's just crazy."
In April of last year, Exum's list of colleges included Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, and Indiana.
But Exum's plans started to change upon his arrival at the Nike Hoop Summit, an all-star showcase for basketball's top young talent around the globe. It started in the week of training leading up to the game where Exum and a team of internationals would face off with Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Team USA.
"I went into the training camp wanting to go against [Canadian star and future No. 1 pick Andrew] Wiggins," Exum said. "He was a highly touted player back then, and nobody in the U.S. knew who I was."
Immediately, Exum impressed Roy Rana, a Canadian coach who would lead the World Select Team at the summit.
"He certainly rose to the challenge," Rana recalled. "He wanted to guard Andrew. You could see he was very confident in himself as a player. He didn't shy away from the opportunity."
Wiggins scored on the Aussie point guard a few times, but Exum got stops and buckets of his own as he battled the class' top recruit.
"He was electric," Rana said. "He had a different gear, different from everybody else. He may not have that same type of ability Andrew has up in the air, but his burst is very unique."
Exum was on the Jazz's radar early, thanks to the work of now-retired international scout Rich Sheubrooks, who ran the Hoop Summit for years and personally invited Exum to the event.
But with most of the team's staff on hand in Portland that week, it was a first chance for many to get an up-close look at the Aussie phenom.
"Really, it was my first exposure, and it allowed me to go back and take a deeper look," said Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. "At the Hoop Summit, he played more of a two-guard or a wing spot. Really, coming out of that week, I didn't know that he was the passer he is. It took some more research to realize that he had very good vision for an 18-year-old. But we were impressed by his length, his speed and maybe even most importantly, his makeup."
In the game, which the World Select Team won, Exum tallied 16 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals while showing off his explosive first step against future pro prospects.
The Hoop Summit, along with Exum's strong showing in the FIBA Under-19 world championships, led him to forgo college in the United States to train at the Australian Institute of Sports, preparing directly for the 2014 NBA Draft.
"Playing in that game, a lot of the players were in this draft class," he said. "Looking at them and how I competed against them, it did give me a bit of a confidence boost."
By chance, Exum's play for Australia's U-19 team was future coach Quin Snyder's first look at the young point guard the Jazz would eventually draft with the No. 5 pick in June.
"A year ago, I was in the airport, and [a game] was on in a little airport cafe. I looked up, and he was playing against Serbia," Snyder recalled. "I was like, 'That guy's fast.' "
But as Exum embarks on his pro career, the Jazz are content to take things slow for now. Experts believe the 6-foot-6 guard has the potential to be a franchise player, but for now he remains a project.
"We've seen a young guy that's capable of making some really good plays and then struggling at times, the way any young player would," Snyder said.
In his first preseason game, Exum scored four points but went just 1 for 5 from the floor. He grabbed three rebounds, dished two assists and committed a turnover in 29 minutes on the court.
"I thought he was a 19-year-old rookie," Snyder said in his assessment.
Since draft night, Jazz have been vocal about managing expectations for such a young player. Exum and his representation have been "very realistic" about the youngster's role with the Jazz for now, Lindsey said. "They just want him to work really hard and work really smart. … I think the common interest is to build a base that he can work from next year."
The team wants Exum to add strength to his size, work on his defensive habits and improve a jump shot that has failed him at times early on.
"I think if we do that, no matter what the production or minutes of play exactly," Lindsey said, "then we really have a platform for him next year, when he turns 20."
But Rana, who also helped coach Exum on the Jazz's summer league team this year, already sees growth since their first encounter in Portland.
"Physically, he's matured. He's stronger, staring to fill out a little bit. He's starting to shoot the ball a little better. You can tell he's a little more experienced now. He's just getting better with each day," Rana said. "I think he's going to be an All-Star. No question."
Preseason Jazz at Trail Blazers
O Thursday, 8 p.m.
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