SALT LAKE CITY — From late-night NBA 2K11 video game sessions to winning a silver medal with Team Australia together at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 Championship, Dante Exum and Ben Simmons embody the definition of being Day 1 friends.
But as Dante Exum was sidelined for all but 14 games of Simmons’ first season in Philadelphia with a shoulder injury, he couldn’t help but notice a rookie beef brewing between his fellow Aussie and new Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell.
Exum laughs as he recounts his strange role as an unlikely middleman in the social scene that captivated basketball fans across the country.
“Yeah, it was definitely weird,” Exum recalls, laughing. “Obviously, I like both the guys and they’re both really good friends of mine, but talking to both of them it was all in good fun and they both knew that but that was the main thing.
“I didn’t want it to get dirty or anything and it never did but it brought good competitive nature to the game,” he added.
The entertaining feud began to escalate last season as the Rookie of the Year frontrunners were becoming the unanimous candidates to win the award. Simmons appeared in an ESPN interview with Chris Haynes where he appeared to slight Mitchell and rest of the class by saying “none” of his first-year peers have caught his attention.
Then Mitchell responded by wearing a Adidas hoodie with the “rookie” definition stamped on the front, which poked fun at Simmons’ redshirt season.
Simmons was actually ruled out of the 2016-17 campaign with a foot injury, after being taken first overall in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Sixers, which technically made him a rookie last year.
“It’s just what happens in sports,” Exum said. “They’re just both competitive guys who obviously had great years and it’s just a little rivalry within the league between our two teams and hopefully it grows a bit more.”
Donovan Mitchell discusses his @adidas “rookie” hoody which takes a shot at Ben Simmons. He says he’s not concerned about the ROY award but is blessed to be in this position. “We just wanted to have fun with it,” Mitchell said. pic.twitter.com/araMEfR0bm— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) April 11, 2018
Simmons won the NBA Rookie of the Year award, but Mitchell was awarded an ESPY for Best Breakthrough Athlete and was picked for the Leader of the New School Award by the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). Exum remained neutral publicly throughout the entire matter and didn’t let it affect how he dealt with either one of them.
“I was happy with whoever won,” Exum said. “They ended up splitting it. Ben won the Rookie of the Year and Donovan got the ESPY so I’m happy for both of them and proud of what they were able to accomplish in their first year really so hopefully they just continue to do that.”
But now as the 2018-19 season is set to begin soon, Philadelphia is one of the games that Exum has marked on the calendar. Utah dropped both games to Philadelphia last season before the All-Star break, but have them scheduled twice again at Philadelphia on Friday, Nov. 16 then at Vivint Arena on Thursday, Dec. 27 on TNT.
Both franchises were linked again this offseason as Jazz assistant general manager Justin Zanik was among the 76ers’ final general manager candidates being interviewed for the front-office role that former NBA All-Star Elton Brand ultimately landed.
“Honestly, I can’t wait to play Philly, and I’m sure Donovan feels the same, and it’s just a good opportunity for people to see us on the court,” Exum said. “I can’t remember the last time I played against Ben so it’s definitely exciting.”
Mitchell and the Jazz franchise were exposed to Exum’s Australian culture by facing two teams of the National Basketball League in the preseason. Utah sharpshooter Joe Ingles is another Australian native and Australia is the No. 1 country in terms of revenue for International League Pass, according to Kelly Williams of NBA Basketball Communications.
“It’s a country that has excellent basketball,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “They have good coaching, I think it starts there. There’s not shortage of Australian talent in the NBA and around the world. Obviously, we’re a team that has a couple Aussies.
While the rookie war was fun for Mitchell while it lasted, his mind has already moved on from that experience as he prepares for his sophomore act in Salt Lake City. He knows how close Exum and Simmons are from their time spent overseas, but claims the beef was all within the love of the game.
“I don’t really say too much to Dante about that. I understand they’re friends, but at the end of the day this is basketball,” Mitchell told the Deseret News. “It is what it is.
“We play this game for money, they’re a lot of other places we could be so at the end of the day, I’m not here to slander somebody or go after them,” he continued. “It’s all within jokes and fun, nothing too personal and I knew they were friends, but last year was last year. I think that’s pretty much over with.”
In the words of New Jack City’s Nino Brown, “it’s always business, never personal.”
“He’s in between, so I’d definitely be like ‘tell him this’ just out of jokes but nothing bad, nothing crazy,” Mitchell said of Exum. “Just all fun.”