This season, there are 108 international players in the NBA from 38 countries and territories, as of opening night. Canada is the country with the largest representation, but Australia is second with nine players. Two of those players, Ben Simmons and Dante Exum, are childhood friends from the Melbourne area. Here’s a look at their shared history.
Simmons and Exum in Australia
Simmons and Exum are Australian and grew up near Melbourne. The two met when they were around 8 years old and have been friends since then. Both of their fathers played for the Australian National Basketball League (NBL). David Simmons, originally from New York City, was an NBL All-Star who played primarily for the Melbourne Tigers. Cecil Exum, who was from North Carolina, was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the 1984 NBA Draft and spent seven years playing for several NBL teams between 1989 and 1996.
The sons grew up playing basketball together in the backyard. The two also played together for Team Australia at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championship, where the team won a silver medal. In 2017, Exum told the Deseret News, “We go way back. It’s been a while, so like 15 or so years. Our parents were friends growing up, so obviously being in Australia, we’ve just been friends.”
After playing for one season at Louisiana State University, Simmons was chosen as the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. Backstage, after the draft, Simmons named Exum as the Australian player he was looking forward to playing against: “I’m definitely going at him when we play.”
However, Simmons then sat out the 2016–17 season due to a foot injury. His first season playing was 2017–18, when he was named 2018 Rookie of the Year and 2018 All-Rookie 1st Team. In his career, he has averaged 16.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game. Simmons hit his first NBA three-point shot in November, also the first he had attempted this season.
Exum skipped college and was selected as the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Utah Jazz. He is now playing in his fifth season in the NBA. Over his career to date, he’s averaged 5.7 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. However, his career has been plagued by injuries, with an ACL tear in 2015, a shoulder injury in 2017, and an ankle sprain, bone bruise, and partially torn patellar tendon all in 2019.
Simmons and Exum in the NBA
It took a couple seasons for the two to get a chance to play opposite each other in the NBA. The first time was at a game on November 16, 2018, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. At the time, Exum told the Deseret News, “It’s going to be just a good time. 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.”
The 76ers won that game 113 to 107. They had both been in the NBA for several years already, but their various injuries prevented them from playing against each other earlier.
The two have stayed connected over the years in addition to basketball, talking in 2017 about playing Call of Duty: WW2 together via live stream. They played video games together as teenagers too. Hopefully these two Aussies will continue their friendship and careers together in the years to come.