words & interview // Nick DePaula
Earlier in the week, several of the NCAA's highest profile names officially decided on their agent representation, setting the stage for negotiations to get underway for the major endorsement that every future NBA rookie is after: The Shoe Deal.
For Australian-born combo guard and expected lottery pick Dante Exum, he's already been officially clad in head-to-toe adidas gear for three weeks and focusing on his training, as he was the first person in his draft class to strike a shoe deal.
Negotiated by agent Rob Pelinka of Landmark Sports, Exum's multi-year endorsement deal with adidas Basketball was announced on April 17th, a full two months before the NBA Draft takes place in New York City. The timetable is a rarity in recent years, as the trend over the past five drafts has been for brands to patiently wait and see which market players land in before signing deals.
That wasn't the case for Dante Exum.
"There's obviously a lot of uncertainty in terms of which team is going to draft him and where he's going to go, but we feel pretty strongly about bringing him into the brand," says Chris Grancio, adidas Head of Global Basketball Sports Marketing.
Whether it ends up being Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Orlando or anywhere in between, Grancio and the adidas Basketball group have no problem outfitting the 18 year-old as he embarks on his pro journey and makes the rare leap to the top of the NBA's Draft board without any college experience. On the bold side, some have pegged the 6'6" playmaking guard's worst-case scenario as Michael Carter-Williams, and his best-case comparison as Penny Hardaway.
The expectations might be lofty, but that's nothing new for the long-touted Exum. While he might be relatively unknown to a general American audience that's more familiar with the likes of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, Exum's pedigree is long known in basketball circles. His father Cecil played alongside Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina, and after going pro himself in the 1984 NBA Draft, he moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1986 to continue his playing career overseas. His eventual wife Desiree joined him for the journey, together they raised three children, and the family has called Australia home ever since.
After following in his 6'6" father's footsteps, Dante's love for hoops and his rising talent helped get him placed into the Australian Institute of Sport, the country's largest athletic academy that also helped mold the games of Andrew Bogut, Lauren Jackson and Patty Mills. The AIS is hoping they can soon add Exum's name to their impressive list of alums, while adidas hopes he'll be another elite level point guard on their brand roster.
"We love Dante, and not only do we think he is a fantastic athlete that has the potential to be an NBA All-Star with the way that he plays, but we also love his personality, his work ethic and the way that he's wired," Grancio beams. "Having gotten a chance to know him, he's just someone that we're happy to have as part of our brand family."
While he's played in the adidas Nations summer camps and tournaments the past two years, Exum's first official experience as part of the adidas "brand family" came just as his deal was made public last month. Accompanied by his mother Desiree and his agent, who was wearing his 1989 NCAA Championship ring and was later on a teammate of the "Fab 5" at Michigan, the three made the short flight from LA, where Pelinka is based and where Dante is training, to Portland, Oregon. After landing on a late Wednesday afternoon, Exum jumped right into a full photoshoot at the adidas Village's basketball court, snapping candids and action shots that would eventually accompany his press release the folllowing morning.
With a full schedule on his plate and a 9 AM start time the following day, Exum, Desiree and Pelinka settled into the brand's hoops showroom. Future products were showcased throughout the room, along with well-placed custom jerseys of expected NBA lottery teams, each featuring "EXUM" and his Australian national team jersey #7.
The stage was set, and soon Exum was diving into brand presentations from every function of the Basketball category: Sports Marketing, Communications, Brand Marketing, Apparel, Performance Footwear and the adidas Originals Footwear team. He then took a tour through the adidas Innovation Team's research area, where he got his feet and body scanned to help with any footwear or apparel fit needs. At just 18, Exum is still sorting out how to give his feedback on things like style, materials and colorways, but he took a particular interest during the overview of the brand's recent commercial campaigns.
His favorite player is Derrick Rose, and he's been quoted saying he likes the way DRose can "break down his opponent, get to the rim and finish over the big men and also create for others. That's one part of his game that is similar to mine." While Derrick is seven years older with a Rookie of the Year award, three All-Star appearances and an MVP trophy (and five signature shoes) under his belt, Exum hopes to one day get to that level. "I want to improve my game to be like his.”
During the campaign recap portion of the marketing presentation, Exum was captivated by each of DRose's spots, whether it was the lighthearted "Slim Chin: Fast Don't Lie" ad or the most recent and more serious "Basketball Is Everything" mantra. Dante is just now getting a sense of how big his own "personal brand" can also be, and even though he's from Australia and will be playing in America, recaps of the tours through Asia and Europe that Derrick and Dwight Howard have taken, along with the category's huge social media reaches around the world also struck a chord.
"We're a global brand," Lorrin Pascoe, adidas Basketball's Senior Global Communications Manager, sharply told him. "We're not just limiting you to what market you're drafted to."
It was a lot to soak up for Exum, who's just getting started on the path to being a pro. With his parents by his side, a seasoned agent that reps the likes of Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Eric Gordon and many others, and a serious approach to training thanks to his time with the Australian Institute of Sport, he's ready for the challenge.
After losing to Dante 21-18 in a heated ping pong match (his table skills were honed during downtime against fellow student athletes at the AIS; mine on lifeguard shift breaks at the Greenhaven Cabana Club), we had a chance to catch up and talk about his busy day of brand and product presentations, his favorite sneakers to play in, and how he plans to continue preparing for the NBA Draft Combine, which kicks off next Wednesday, and the NBA Draft, slated for June 26th.
Nick DePaula: What were some of your first experiences with the brand growing up?
Dante Exum: My first experience with the brand was adidas Nations. In Australia, other brands were above it, and it was my first introduction to the brand and that's when it took over with me. That's when I started wearing the shoes, liking the shoes and liking all of their products. I think that's when I started to say that these were the shoes I wanted to play in.
NDP: Were there any particular models that you liked playing in the most? Around the time you started with Nations, the first Crazy Light was just coming out.
DE: Yeah, so the Crazy Light was the biggest shoe for me. I think bringing that type of technology to the game was something special for a player like me, that likes to be light on their feet and quick. It's a great technology.
NDP: Once you decided to turn pro, what were some of the things that you were looking for in a shoe deal? Obviously there are a lot of brands out there, but what were some of the things that you wanted for yourself?
DE: I was looking for something that was a family feel. Being here for the past few days, it's given me that. I think that was one of the important things, is that I'm always going to be apart of the adidas family. Also, just looking at a shoe that I'm comfortable with, around people that I'm comfortable with. I've been in the adidas Nations program for a couple years now, and I'm comfortable with everyone.
NDP: You had presentations from the social media team, the product team, from brand marketing and all of the different groups of the brand this morning. Was there anything in particular that you really liked that stuck out to you?
DE: I was looking at the brand and how the players are involved with the brand. What was the strongest to me was also the adidas Originals side of things, and how they get the athletes involved with it. I think that's going to be something that I'm going to be looking forward to and enjoying, and looking forward to getting my fashion up a bit.
NDP: It's become more and more rare for guys to sign their shoe deals before the draft, but you became the first player this draft to sign.
DE: Some brands want to naturally see where you'll go [in the draft], and then they'll decide how interested they are. Adidas came on really strong and showed that they were very interested, and I think it helped being in the adidas program and already having that relationship.
NDP: adidas is known for having a lot of great point guards in the NBA, and you're most likely going to be a point guard and a combo guard at times. How would you compare your game to some of the guys that they already have, and what style do you envision yourself playing?
DE: They've got shoes like the Crazyquick, and I think having a player like John Wall as an ambassador for that shoe is great, with how he plays quick. I like speed, and I'd like to play like that. I think that being in the shoe that he's in can give me a bit of an advantage.
NDP: What are some things that you look for in general in a shoe you'd like?
DE: What I look for in a shoe is great traction, so I'm not slipping or sliding on the court. Also, it has to be a comfortable shoe. And then also something that's going to give me support, but stay firm to my foot. I like something that you could pull as tight as you want, and it grips my foot. Adidas has done that, and I'm sure they're going to keep improving on all of the products that they're producing.
NDP: I've seen you playing in the Rose 4 and some other newer models, what's the latest stuff you've been playing in?
DE: I've been playing in the Crazy Fast 2 and the Crazy Light 3 Low. The Crazy Light 3 Low has been a low-type of shoe that I like that's comfortable to my foot. The Crazy Fast is something that I usually wouldn't play in [because it's higher], but they gave it to me and I tried it out and I liked it. So I'm willing to give high cuts a try too.
NDP: What's been your favorite shoe to play in of all of the adidas models you've worn?
DE: My favorite shoe is the Crazy Light 1 Low. It grips my foot and has good traction.
NDP: You've been wearing the Boost running shoe around yesterday and today. How do those feel, and are you looking forward to Boost making its way into Basketball?
DE: I'm excited to finally get Boost in basketball. I've been wearing the running shoes for over a month now, and you notice going from another shoe that doesn't have Boost to putting on Boost, you just notice that first feeling. It just cushions your foot, and I've had knee problems before, so I'm sure this will help with my knees and being on the court longer and having Boost give me an advantage.
NDP: You mentioned upping your fashion, how would you describe your style off-court?
DE: I'm kind of a quiet guy now and I won't wear any loud things. I'm definitely trying to get more into that kind of style where I'm looking at more trends and things that Jeremy Scott is doing. Some of the stuff he's designing is very cool and different, and that's some of the stuff that I want to get more into.
NDP: One of the big things with the adidas Originals group has been all of the musicians that've been getting involved with the brand recently, like Kanye, Pharrell, 2Chainz, Big Sean and other guys. Was there anyone in particular that you were most excited to see become involved with the brand?
DE: All of them are big names. Being in Australia, we're kind of hidden from them, but we kind of know them as these big artists. Someone like Kanye has created his own brand, and it's recognized globally. I think to be in that situation where he's going to be creating things for the brand, I definitely hope to be able to get some of that stuff.
NDP: Now that you're going through the process of training for the draft, what's a normal day look like for you, and what types of things are you doing as you build out your regiment before the draft?
DE: A general day for me will be from 10 to 5. I'll shoot in the morning, followed by a weights and conditioning session. Then I'll be back on the court for a skills session in the afternoon, and then get shots up after that also.
NDP: Is there anything in particular that you're working to focus on, or maybe something that scouts or GMs are looking to see you improve on?
DE: I think something everyone needs to get better at is shooting. That's something that I need to build up, so I'm trying to just get as many shots up as I can. Also, finishing. I'm entering a league with a lot of athletic bigs that are going to come across the key and try to block me. I think finishing is a big one.
NDP: Being that you're from Australia, fans are of course more familiar with the college players here in the states. What are some things that people might not know about you that you're excited to have fans begin to learn, whether it's your personality or style of play?
DE: I've been asked that before actually, and I don't really know how to describe myself. [laughs] I'm someone that loves to be serious on the court, and off the court I just like to chill. I'm probably going to come across as the type of guy that's not always just focused on basketball off the court, but [on the court] I'll always be thinking about it.
NDP: What are some things that you like doing for hobbies when you're not playing?
DE: I like playing video games, and ping pong is also something I've always liked doing. Any activity like that.
NDP: Something that's still a form of competition.
DE: Yeah, exactly.
NDP: Lastly, what's it like going through this process, being at the adidas Village and meeting all of the people from the different teams?
DE: Being in Australia, you're kind of hidden away from this kind of environment of a big brand. Coming here to see the facilities and how everyone is a family that cares about eachother and the work they put in, it inspires me to try and do the best I can on the court and help them produce products for me on-court. I think that's the best way to have a relationship with them, and I think it's been a good trip so far and I can't wait to come back.