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Down Under rising up with top talent and rabid fan base

But Australia, New Zealand still waiting for the NBA to stop by

POSTED: Nov 3, 2014 10:22 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Dante Exum, Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills are just three of the most recent NBA exports from Down Under.

Dante Exum has an NBA home, Patty Mills a championship ring, Andrew Bogut an important role on a playoff team, Matthew Dellavedova a future, and that's not the thing. Others have arrived as well and more are coming, maybe even at the front of the lottery. That's not the thing either.

The true measure of the pipeline from Down Under to the NBA, trumpeted by Ambassador Bogut and confirmed by the league, is that Australia is the No. 1 country outside North America for League Pass subscriptions. Australia is also No. 1 in e-commerce.

The NBA was part of their world before they were really part of this world, with long runs for Bogut (currently) and Luc Longley (formerly) but mostly brief stays of the likes of Chris Anstey, David Andersen and Shane Heal. The roots are so deep into the NBA, in fact, that league officials are not depending on the surge of players from Australia and New Zealand in the last two Drafts to spark interest there. Interest is already sparked.

Australia, about twice as many air miles from California as the basketball hotbeds of Europe are from New York, the place that can't get an exhibition game, can't even get a stop from Basketball Without Borders, gets it.

NBA Rooks: Dante Exum - The Aussie Arrives

Last Spring, Australian Dante Exum was a man of mystery to even NBA experts -- but after Summer League and the Preseason, Utah fans like what they see in the 5th overall pick in the draft.

"There's a few things that are helpful," said Scott Levy, the senior vice president and managing director of NBA Asia & India, which overseas Oceania as well. "One, it's a very strong economy. Everyone has credit cards. There's good Internet penetration, so you can watch a 2 ½-hour game and have a consistent, secure connection and be able to access that and you can pay for the service as well. That helps. And the consumption by Australians around sports in general -- not just NBA, but all sports -- if you were to compare that to the amount spent on all sports in any country in the world, Australia would rank right up there at the top per capita. There's just an incredible passion for sports in that country."

The league last year launched Facebook and Twitter platforms targeting Australia and New Zealand. There is a local web site beyond the global reach of NBA.com, complete with local bloggers.

That those initiatives (plus the push with e-commerce) have come within the last 16 months is perfect timing then. Exum has arrived in Utah as the No. 5 pick amid great buildup, and Cameron Bairstow went to Chicago as a second-round pick. (Bairstow is the fourth Aussie to play for the Bulls, following Longley, Anstey and Luke Schenscher.)

If you were to compare [sports consumption in Australia] to the amount spent on all sports in any country in the world, Australia would rank right up there at the top per capita. There's just an incredible passion for sports in that country.

– Scott Levy, senior VP of NBA Asia & India

Mills won a title in June with the Spurs, as did Aron Baynes, who was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia. Bogut is a critical piece of a team, the Warriors, that captivates far beyond its own fan base. Dellavedova has gone from undrafted in 2013 looking for an opportunity to make a roster to the backup to Kyrie Irving (who was actually born in Australia, too) in Cleveland. Brock Motum was in camp with the Jazz before being cut and signing in Australia. Joe Ingles began with the Clippers, was cut, and joined the Jazz.

Exum's arrival as a lottery pick comes a year after Steven Adams entered the league as the No. 12 pick as New Zealand's biggest basketball export since Sean Marks and Kirk Penny. (Adams had one season of college at Pittsburgh. Exum came directly from Australia with no experience in the United States, though his American father won a national championship on the Michael Jordan-James Worthy team at North Carolina in 1982.)

"It's huge for Australia, especially for Dante Exum," Adams said. "He's an Aussie bloke, that guy. I don't know too much about him. I'm hoping for more New Zealanders to come up. But it's going to increase the market over there. The market over there is just bringing up the awareness in basketball. What I had planned is for New Zealand -- I don't know about Australia -- is to make it more on the same level as rugby over there, to get enough exposure out there so kids can come to America and get scholarships and have basketball take them wherever."

Steven Adams Talks About His Roots on Inside Stuff

OKC's Steven Adams talks about being the first New Zealand native to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Catch more with Adams this Saturday on Inside Stuff.

While Exum downplays the responsibility of being at the forefront of the surge of talent from Australia -- "I'm sure they're not going to look at me as any different if I don't achieve what I want to achieve," he said of expectations back home -- he also has the benefit of knowing others from the country will likely share the burden. Ben Simmons, a freshman at LSU, is tracking to the top of a future draft, and Thon Maker is a star prospect attending a high school in Canada.

At the same time, Australia's National Basketball League has become a destination for NBA draft picks needing additional work, a route that has traditionally gone through Europe. James Ennis, a second-round pick by the Heat in 2013, spent last season in Perth and since then has made a positive impression from summer league through the early days of his rookie campaign in Miami. Jordan McRae, a Philadelphia second-rounder in 2014, signed in Melbourne, while the 76ers retain his rights.

Truly bringing the NBA there, though, has proven difficult. Australia is the only continent (discounting Antarctica) yet to get an exhibition game or a Basketball Without Borders. A stop next preseason has already been ruled out as well. The NBA wants additional programs in place -- Junior NBA for development, three-on-three tournaments -- before visiting. So far, only smaller camps through the league -- one with Longley in Australia joined by former Bulls teammates Ron Harper and Horace Grant -- have been held.

"We stage games in China most years and that's part of a 12-month partnership with companies and government organizations on the ground to build the sport," Levy said. "We're having those conversations [in Australia] and we're optimistic they're going to lead us in the right direction. But there needs to be more than just a game to make this all work."

Said Bogut: "I've been asking the question for about a year, two years. 'Why haven't we gotten a game?' It all leads to the obvious factor. It's not a big financial gain for the NBA. But I think on the flip side, it's a great reward for the fans that have followed the NBA back when it was impossible to follow it. There was a time when international League Pass wasn't available and [the league] still had a cult following of people logging in online, checking stats, trying to find live streams illegally online, which isn't a great thing, but there was still a cult following that really followed the game. It'd just be nice just to have a game there. I don't even care if I'm involved. I think the fans in Australia, they look at Paris. They look at Beijing's had a game. Even Italy might have had a game. Spain. We're a first-world country, we have great facilities and we have a lot of great sporting events."

Even Major League Baseball went there with regular-season games this year.

"And the guy from the NBA Asia office oversees Oceania," Bogut said. "We don't even have our own office. That should tell you what the deal is there. The NBA's looking at it like 'We have not invested one dollar in marketing in Australia and we're making money, so why should we go?' But I think it would be nice to get a game there."

Levy said the league is looking hard at the possibility to reward the region and build on the marketing successes. That would be the case no matter what. But it's become all the more meaningful now that growth is showing up on NBA rosters, too.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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