Duop Reath's incredible journey from South Sudan to NBL's biggest stage

During a 2014 South Sudanese basketball tournament in Penrith, Marcus King, an assistant coach at Lee College in Texas watched on, with one player catching his eye.

6'10", athletic, long, with a silky skillset for his size, King saw something special from this teenager at the tournament filled with potential future professionals.

That player was Duop Reath.

Eight years on, the Illawarra Hawks star big man is set to play a major role in the NBL playoffs, though he vividly remembers where his path to the professional game began to gather momentum.

"It was a big tournament for South Sudanese to get together and play together," Reath recalls to ESPN. "Marcus King, who was an assistant at Lee College came and saw me play, he asked me if I wanted to come to America. In the back of my mind, I thought it was cool, but I wasn't really interested, I didn't really think about it, America was foreign to me."

King recalls the initial hesitation, leaving Australia unsure if he would be able to convince Reath to pack his bags for the States.

"There's a lot of scams where people say come here or there and he was very distant and said he was okay because he was focused on education," King remembers. "We had a couple of conversations and finally we were able to exchange emails and start the process of recruiting."

"I got to this tournament and for a basketball coach it's like a kid in a candy store because you have these long, athletic, skills players at all levels and age groups. Here's this 6'9", 6'10" man that you instantly see the potential because he's long and he can move, he had a pretty good skillset, had good touch and could make shots."

At first, Duop Reath never assumed a professional basketball career was on the horizon. He was simply bigger and more athletic than the kids he played against.

After a while, he realised it was more than just his physical size that allowed him to dominate and from that point on, he grew to love the game.

"Tenth or eleventh grade I began to love basketball. Before that I was just tall and my friends played. I was much bigger than some of the other kids, so it was easy to score and play defence, but when I was 15 or 16, I felt like it was something I enjoyed, I fell in love with the process of getting better.

"Once you see little results, like the jump shot getting better, you're making shots, you just want to keep practicing. I fell in love with the process."

The hunt for improvement wasn't just related to sports, with Reath making the move to the US with the idea of getting a degree and taking advantage of the educational opportunities the program could offer.

Those opportunities grew when Reath transferred to Division 1 LSU after two impressive seasons at Lee College, with King remaining a key figure in his life.

"When I got to LSU, Marcus pushed me a lot. Through the challenges of being away from home and the work you need to put in to be a good player, he made me understand that. I felt like I wasn't that good, I thought to be a professional would be a dream come true, but I went to America to get that free education, to get my degree.

"I wanted to do something in the health field. It's always been a dream of mine, being able to help people in any way possible.

"Once I got to LSU, I felt like I had a pretty good chance to make a living out of the game and I loved it, the process, the work it teaches you."

Reath averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds across 64 appearances in two seasons at LSU, leading to a Summer League opportunity with the Dallas Mavericks before ultimately deciding to turn professional in Europe.

"I had the opportunity between G League, Europe or Australia but talking with the people in my circle, we though the Europe route would be more beneficial in the long run.

"Playing in Serbia, it's a very tough basketball country, they love basketball, and they push you to your limits and I needed that. I was still new to basketball, and I needed that development. Every year I was progressing which was my main objective."

Toiling away in Serbia, away from the limelight, Reath continued to develop, ultimately receiving a spot in the Boomers squad for the Tokyo Olympics.

After a successful stint in Europe was capped by a Serbian League championship in 2021, Reath was ready for a change, though he maintains he didn't know Australia was on the cards. After securing a spot on the Boomers squad for the Tokyo Olympics, Reath Played under Illawarra head coach Brian Goorjian, which soon opened up a return to Australia.

"Australia has always been on the back of my mind, to go back home. I've been following the league since I was in college, seeing how it's been progressing, it's a strong league. I felt like it was perfect timing to try and get back to the NBL and see what I can do as a player.

"Meeting Goorj was great, seeing what kind of person he is and what kind of coach he is. Talking to the players that played in the NBL, the things they said about the league was big too, they said nothing but good things, so it was a no brainer."

While Reath is now a known commodity on the world basketball scene and an Olympic medallist, he remains in contact with King multiple times per week, with their relationship meaning so much more than what happens on the court.

King marvels at what Reath has been able to achieve thus far in life, from fleeing South Sudan as a child with his family to a refugee camp in Kenya, before moving to Australia to forge a new life of safety and stability.

"Here's a young man that moved from South Sudan to Australia, learned another culture, the English language, and then moved to another culture in the United States, another education and achieved his masters in a four-year time frame. That's incredibly significant while being a hell of a basketball player."

"From the time that I met him until now, we talk at least three or four times a week, not just about basketball but life. We are super, super close. We're family."

"By nature, he's a giver. By nature, he's a leader, and a leader by example. When he speaks people listen because what he says is pertinent and it's very direct. As a player and a teammate, to coach him, he would always get on guys and explain to them in different ways, or he would take the time to show him. That's his deal, that's just who he is as a person."

Reath constantly reminds you of the joy he exudes from the process, from learning, from seeing growth. This mindset has allowed him to be at peace with the ups and downs on NBL22, as he adjusts to a featured role on offence with the Hawks.

"I came into a different role from what I've been playing professionally over the last three years. It took some adjusting, coach told me it would take some time, there would be some ups and downs, but I feel like I've learned a lot this season. I feel like I'm just going to keep getting better," he says.

"Playing in Europe, it's different. I was more of a space the floor, bring energy, whereas here it's a bigger role. I'm enjoying it, just being able to play that way and learn from my mistakes and help the team win."

In a season he describes as the continuation of a career-long development process, the star big man has put up 15.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Individual numbers that are well above those he compiled in Europe and at LSU.

With the Hawks five wins away from the second championship in franchise history, the 25-year-old looms as a major piece of the puzzle if they are to achieve the ultimate prize.

Win or lose, the journey for Reath still appears in the early stages, with his prime years on court still to come.

King believes there are plenty more stories like this to be unearthed, as long as the South Sudanese tournament exists.

"The tournament doesn't exist anymore for a myriad of reasons," King laments.

"I hope someone, somewhere sees the value in it, because without the South Sudanese basketball tournament I don't find Duop Reath and Duop Reath isn't in the position he's in now.

"Hopefully it can come back because there are a lot of young men who are missing their opportunities because they don't have that stage anymore."

At least for the next week, Reath is going to be on the brightest stage that domestic hoops has to offer. Of course, all this would have sounded ridiculous back in that gym in Penrith in 2014.