Van Exel was raised primarily by his mother, Joyce. He attended St. Joseph High School, a private high school in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He played from 1987 to 1989 and scored 1,282 points, including 772 as a senior. He led the WISAA (private schools) state tournament in scoring as a junior and senior when his team lost in the finals both years. He was named to the Associated Press all-state team as a senior.
Van Exel wanted to play college basketball, but his grades weren't high enough to qualify for a top-flight program, so he went to junior college at Trinity Valley Community College for two years. He applied himself to his studies and qualified to enroll at the University of Cincinnati and play for coach Bob Huggins.
Prior to Van Exel's arrival, the Bearcats had gone 18-12. In 1991–92, with Van Exel as starting point guard averaging 12.3 points and 2.9 assists per game, the Bearcats went 29-5, won their league tournament, and won four NCAA tournament games to advance to the NCAA Final Four, where they were defeated by Michigan and their "Fab Five."
In his senior year, Van Exel led the University of Cincinnati Bearcats with 18.3 points and 4.5 assists per game as the team went 27-5, again won their league tournament, and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight before falling in overtime to North Carolina. Van Exel earned Third-team All-America honors (AP, Basketball Times and Basketball Weekly) and was a finalist for the Wooden Award for player of the year. In only two seasons, he became Cincinnati's all-time leader in three-point field goals made (147), attempted (411), and percentage (.358). These records have since been surpassed.
In a 13-year NBA career, Van Exel played for the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.
Van Exel's career began when he was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round as the 37th overall pick of the 1993 NBA draft. Van Exel and Eddie Jones were the centerpiece of the Lakers' rebuilding plan after the end of their successful Showtime era in the early '90s. Led by Van Exel's flashy play, the two guards helped the team to the playoffs in 1995 after the Lakers had missed the postseason for the first time in years in 1994. Van Exel was known for his shooting streaks, buzzer-beating shots, and speed, earning him the nickname "Nick the Quick".
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 10 in the NBA in that category twice. In 1996, during a game against the Denver Nuggets, he pushed a referee, resulting in an ejection, seven-game suspension, and $187,000 fine.
On June 24, 1998, after five seasons as the starting point guard, Van Exel was traded to the Denver Nuggets for Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue.
Playing on a Nuggets team which was one of the worst in the league, Van Exel achieved several career highs. Over four seasons he put up averages of 17.7 ppg and 8.4 apg, averaging 21.4 ppg through 45 games of the 2001–02 season.
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, Van Exel played a smaller role, but contributed effectively by creating scoring opportunities and scoring key three pointers. He averaged 12.5 ppg during the 2002–03 season, and nearly 20 ppg in the 2003 playoffs, carrying the offensive load for the Mavericks in a tight series against the Sacramento Kings, scoring 36 and 40 points in back-to-back wins in games 2 and 3.
Van Exel was traded on August 18, 2003 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 Jiří Welsch. During the 2003–04 season, he played in a career low 39 games, averaging 12.6 ppg and 5.3 apg.
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.
Van Exel was waived by Portland on August 3, 2005, and he signed with the San Antonio Spurs on August 29. After signing, Van Exel stated that it would be his last season in an NBA uniform. Due to knee and elbow injuries, he only played in 65 games during the 2005–06 season. He averaged career lows in almost every statistical category, including points (5.5 ppg) and minutes (15 mpg). In the playoffs, San Antonio was eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in a series that lasted seven games. Two days later, on May 24, 2006, ESPN's Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon reported on their show Pardon the Interruption that Van Exel would soon announce his retirement.
Texas Southern University hired Van Exel as an assistant coach to the Tigers men's basketball team on October 15, 2009.
On September 8, 2010, the Atlanta Hawks hired Van Exel as a player development instructor. Van Exel remained in that position for the 2010–11, 2011–12, and 2012–13 seasons. In 2013–14, he served as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks.
On July 8, 2015, Van Exel was named head coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA D-League replacing Eduardo Nájera
On June 8, 2016, Van Exel was hired by the Memphis Grizzlies to serve as an assistant coach.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 recorded a career-high 23 assists on January 5, 1997 against the Vancouver Grizzlies. This record has come under scrutiny when it was admitted by the scorekeeper for the Grizzlies that he intentionally inflated Van Exel's assist total due to the scorekeeper's displeasure with the NBA's scorekeeping system and wanted to prove its inaccuracy.
He finished in the top 15 in assists in eight 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.
He twice scored a career single-game high of 44 points, both for the Nuggets—on April 15, 2000 against the Los Angeles Clippers (along with eight assists) and on November 1, 2001 (again with eight assists) against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Van Exel was famous throughout his playing career for his peculiar free throw routine, in which he took his free throw attempts while standing well over a foot behind the free throw line.
Named an NBA All-Star in 1998, along with three of his Lakers teammates
Member of the 1994 All-Rookie Second Team
Van Exel once appeared on an episode of MTV Cribs.
On January 31, 2013, Van Exel's 22-year-old son, Nickey Van Exel, was convicted of murdering his friend and sentenced to 60 years in prison.