Early one Sunday evening, Mangok Mathiang answers his phone. Initially his tone seems disenchanted. His Charlotte Hornets affiliate ball club, the Greensboro Swarm, just lost a tight one against the Long Island Nets 125-122 at the Fieldhouse Arena. He tells me about the twists and turns of the game and his haul of 15 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals — a somewhat typical stat line he’s been able to produce nightly during his first G-League season in Greensboro.
His mind quickly turns to the week ahead like a reflex action, and he reels off a laundry list of to-do items: recovery, shootarounds, watching video footage to correct missteps, play walkthroughs, defence work, pep talks and locker room banter. After being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets on a two-way contract on August 2, 2017, Mathiak has played 35 games with the Swarm and has accrued 3.3 minutes in three games with the Hornets. He spends most of his time living in Greensboro, a blue-collar city 92 miles north of Charlotte, and when he gets the call up, he stays in a hotel next door to the Spectrum Center, the Hornets’ home court. He admits it might seem like a complicated arrangement but he’s now so firmly set in this routine that it just feels normal.
For a 25-year old rookie entering new territory, he gets it. He knows he’s in a holding pattern; grinding, building up reps, clocking up minutes to get better while keeping his body in peak condition. It’s all about being ready for The Call. But opportunities like that take luck and time. Sometimes they don’t even come at all. Mathiang is playing the long game, absorbing every minute of this NBA ride.
“It’s all a blessing. What I’ve been through, all of that has basically lead to this position,” said the South Sudanese-born Australian. “My number one goal is to never be satisfied. For me, I’m just taking it day by day as much as I can; whether I’m up in Greensboro, or down in Charlotte, I’m enjoying myself.”
After four years at the University of Louisville, Mangok signed with the Hornets in 2017. He became one of two Sudanese-born Australians to be drafted to an NBA roster, joining Milwaukee’s Thon Maker; the gifted 7'1" center who can drop threes and has the athleticism of a Kevin Durant. But there’s been other Sudanese NBA players that have impacted the game such as two-time All-Star Luol Deng, and defensive center Manute Bol, who twice led the NBA in blocked shots.
During his time with the Louisville Cardinals, Mathiang evolved into a complete player. On the court, he was loud and bought into trash talk. Off the court, he was studious and wanted to be a sponge for feedback. After some setbacks – he suffered a broken foot twice – Mathiang only played 10 games in his third season, but it was his senior year where he finally started to show glimpses of the offensive skills he could bring to the table. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino gave him more freedom, and with an expanded role, Mathiang contributed an average of 7.8 points, 6.0 rebounds on 67.1 percent shooting. After a Louisville NCAA win last year, when Mathiang put up 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, coach Pitino talked about how the big man’s game had progressed through adversity.
Sitting in the locker room after Mathiang’s final NCAA game in 2017 a reporter asked him if he was surprised at how far his game has come. Mathiang told him, “throughout my whole career being here, I was known as a guy who had no clue what he was doing offensively, but this season showed people differently and opened their eyes.”
After the summer training with the Hornets and landing on an NBA roster, it only took one game into the Swarm’s 2017-18 season for Mathiang make his coaches pay attention. He opened the year with an 18 point, 11 rebound night which was the backbone of the Swarm’s 123-88 romp over Canton Charge. That night he shot at 75 percent. Throughout the month of November Mathiang continued to roll on and mix defence with offence. He averaged 11.6 points and 9.5 rebounds in nine outings, with four double-doubles (just missing out on three more), scoring in double digits on seven occasions. Then there was the Windy City Bulls game right before Christmas – a dominant Mathiang delivered a 28 point, 11 rebound night, on 57 percent shooting.