Van Exel began his collegiate career at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, averaging 18.8 ppg and 6.1 apg overall. After two seasons there he transferred to the University of Cincinnati where he would play for coach Bob Huggins. Under Huggins, he worked his way into the system slowly at first, then started the final 20 games of his junior year, leading Cincinnati to an 18-2 mark and an NCAA Final Four appearance. Van Exel then paced the Bearcats in scoring (18.3 ppg), assists (4.5 apg) and steals (1.8) as a senior, leading the Bearcats into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. He earned Third Team All-America honors (AP, Basketball Times and Basketball Weekley) and was a finalist for the Wooden Award as a senior. Became Cincinnati's all-time leader in three-point field goals made (147), attempted (411) and percentage (.358) in only two seasons with the Bearcats (records since surpassed)
At 6'1" and 190 pounds, Van Exel has enjoyed a 14 year career in which he has played for the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. He was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round as the 37th overall pick of the 1993 NBA Draft out of the University of Cincinnati.
Along with Eddie Jones the two guards were the centerpiece of the Lakers "rebuilding" process after the glory years of the "Showtime" era came to a close in the early '90s. Led by Van Exel's flashy play, the two guards led the team back to the playoffs in 1995 after missing the postseason for the first time in years in 1994. During his career with the Lakers Van Exel averaged 14.9 points per game as well as 7.3 assists per game, finishing in the top ten in the NBA in that category twice. By 1998, with the arrivals of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal the future looked bright for the Lakers, but Van Exel's days in purple and gold were numbered due to tensions with O'Neal and the emergence of Bryant and Derek Fisher in the backcourt.
In Denver, playing on a Nuggets team which was one of the worst in the league, Van Exel enjoyed his best years statistically speaking. Over four seasons he put up averages of 17.9 ppg and 8.3 apg, averaging a career high 21.4 ppg through 27 games of the 2001-02 season. Then on February 21, 2002, he was traded by the Nuggets along with Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad to the Dallas Mavericks for Juwan Howard, Donnell Harvey, Tim Hardaway, and a 2002 first-round pick. In Dallas his averages went down, but he was now on a much better team destined for the playoffs. Van Exel filled his role amply, hitting big three pointers and penetrating to set up opponents or score himself. With the Mavericks Van Exel averaged 15.5 ppg during the regular season, but when it came playoff time he took his game to a higher level. In the 2003 playoffs he averaged nearly 20 ppg.
After his key role in taking the Mavericks to the brink of the NBA Finals, in a quizzical move, Van Exel was traded on August 18, 2003. He was traded to the Golden State Warriors along with Evan Eschmeyer, Avery Johnson, Popeye Jones, and Antoine Rigaudeau in exchange for Antawn Jamison, Chris Mills, Danny Fortson, and Jiri Welsch. During the 2003 season with the Warriors he played in a career low 39 games, averaging 12.6 ppg and 5.3 apg.
After the season, on July 20, 2004, he was traded by Golden State to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Dale Davis and Dan Dickau. With the Blazers he played in only 53 games, averaging 11 ppg.
After being waived by Portland on August 3, 2005, he was signed by the San Antonio Spurs on August 29 to provide veteran leadership and a spark off the bench. After signing, Van Exel stated that it would be his last in an NBA uniform. The Spurs used him sparingly during the season 2005-2006 as he played in only 65 games. He averaged career lows in almost every category, including points (5.5 ppg) and minutes (15 mpg). In the playoffs, San Antonio was knocked out a seven game series at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Two days later, on May 24th, 2006, ESPN's Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon reported on their show Pardon the Interruption than Van Exel would soon announce his retirement.
Nick Van Exel is known as one of the better clutch shooters of all-time, consistently elevating his game in the Playoffs and hitting game winning shots. He has a deadly three point shot, is a fierce penetrator, and brings a high level of energy to every game. He is one of the most well rounded and underrated guards in NBA history.
- Van Exel was the last Laker to score in the fabled Boston Garden when he nailed a three pointer at the buzzer to give the Lakers the win.
- He hit a pair of clutch three-pointers for the Lakers in game 5 of the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. The first one sent the game into overtime, while the second one decided the game.
- He also performed superbly in the 2003 playoffs while coming off the bench for the Dallas Mavericks, leading Dallas all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
- Van Exel currently ranks 6th all-time in NBA career three-point field goals made with 1,528.
- Has finished in the top 15 in assists in 8 of 13 seasons.
- Coming into the 2005-06 season Van Exel was first all-time among Los Angeles Lakers in three point field goals made with 750. Midway through the season he was surpassed by Kobe Bryant.
- Van Exel has stated that we will retire at the end of the 2005-2006 NBA season.
- During his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, Van Exel was referred to by the nicknames "Nick the Quick" and "Nick at Night".
- His free throw technique is somewhat unorthodox in that he stands about a foot behind the line. He developed this style after his tenure with the Lakers because he felt he shot better when he was not on the line. He has shot 79.6 percent from the line in his career.
- His nicknames include "Nick the Quick", "Nick at Nite", "Van Smack" (via Jim Rome) and Nick "Van Excellent". In high school his nickname was "Pearl"
- Nick's house was featured on MTV Cribs in its first season.
- While with the Lakers, during the 1996 season he shoved a referee over the scorer's table. Magic Johnson, who had rejoined the team during the season, publicly denounced Van Exel's outburst. Johnson went on to chest bump a referee only a few games later. Both were suspended.
- Has a scar on his right eyebrow from a traffic accident when he was a teenager.
- Wore number 31 while playing in college for Cincinnati, number 9 for the Los Angeles Lakers, number 37 for the Golden State Warriors, number 19 for the Portland Trail Blazers, and number 31 for the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs.