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Jazz’s Exum, Sixers’ Simmons to fulfill childhood dreams in first NBA head-to-head matchup

A huge smile immediately creases the face of Dante Exum when he glances at a pair of old childhood photos from Australia.

In one, the Utah Jazz guard is stretched out on the ground next to his brother, Jamaar, as they’re engaged in a heated battle of NBA 2K11 at their friend Ben Simmons’ house.

“That’s just a classic,” Exum said while pointing at the photo. “That was at Ben’s. That’s just a classic… we didn’t even know they took the photo because we were so into it.”

Then, in the other one, the baby-faced Exum and Simmons are sitting side-by-side grinning in navy blue button-down shirts staring at the camera.

“Ben looks like a baby right there,” Exum pointed before laughing. “That was for his 18th birthday in Australia.”

Now the childhood Australian buddies will create a new memory on the hardwood at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday when Exum’s Jazz team make their third stop of a five-game road trip to face Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers.

For the last two seasons, the buddies have been plagued by injuries which forced them to miss the previous head-to-head matchups, but this time they’re both ready.

“It’s going to be just a good time,” Exum told the Deseret News. “Just to be out there on the court. We dreamed about it as kids growing up and just to finally play. We’ve avoided each other for two years so just for that first time is going to be good.”

Exum was sidelined with a shoulder injury for all but 14 games of Simmons’ first official season in Philadelphia a year ago. Simmons later was named Rookie of the Year as the 76ers won both contests against the Jazz.

Even before that, in 2016-17, Simmons was ruled out of for the entire season with a foot injury after being drafted No. 1 overall. The Jazz won both of their games against Philly that season. Suffering that injury is how Simmons later developed the redshirt rookie campaign clearance in 2017-18 where he won the head-to-head race against Donovan Mitchell, Exum’s current Jazz teammate.

Simmons previously told the Deseret News that he met Exum as early as 8 years old and they’ve been friends ever since. They once teamed up to win a silver medal with Team Australia during the 2012 FIBA Under-17 Championship, but that friendship will be out of the window once the ball is tipped.

“We’ve obviously talked about this moment and I told him we’re going to beat them so we better go out,” Exum said. “You’re going to be seeing me on the bench getting up every time.

“It’s just funny to see how far we’ve come and how much he’s grown and developed as a player,” he added.

For Australian basketball, the NBA success of Exum and Simmons is a culmination of the overseas talent in their country.

Exum, 23, is averaging 7.6 points, 2.1 assists and 1.6 rebounds during his fifth season in Utah as a valuable role player, while Simmons has emerged as a potential franchise cornerstone alongside Joel Embiid in Philly. Simmons is putting up 14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists for a 9-7 Sixers squad.

Both of their fathers also played in the Australian National Basketball League (NBL). Ben’s father, David Simmons, was an NBL All-Star for the Melbourne Tigers while Dante’s dad, Cecil Exum, was originally drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1984, but also enjoyed a successful seven-year career in the NBL (1989-96).

“It’s incredible when you see those little kids hanging around their dads and before you know it, they’re not just following in their footsteps but going steps further than their dads ever did,” said NBL TV analyst Liam Santamaria.

On opening night of the NBA, the league announced that 108 international players from a record-tying 42 countries and territories were on rosters for the 2018-19 season. Australia was tied with France for the NBA’s second-most represented countries with a record of nine players, behind Canada.

In addition to Simmons and Exum, other Aussies around the league on opening night included: Exum’s teammate Joe Ingles (Jazz); Jonah Bolden (Philadelphia); Aron Baynes (Boston); Ryan Broekhoff (Dallas); Matthew Dellavedova (Milwaukee); Kyrie Irving (Celtics) and Patty Mills (San Antonio).

“It’s getting bigger and bigger,” Santamaria said of Australian basketball. “Luc Longley was sort of our pioneer, then we had a few guys follow in his footsteps with a few opportunities then it took a massive step when Andrew Bogut got drafted No. 1 and then from there it’s just been growing steadily with Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles obviously and Ben Simmons, in particular, has a potential to be a game changer for Australian basketball.

“With Rookie of the Year, and with the potential of where he can go with his career, there’s the potential for a Michael Jordan-type impact back home in terms of not just participation, because participation numbers in the game have always been pretty high but just an interest in him, in the NBA and also in the Australian team and the domestic league.”