Mangok Mathiang on his NBA journey, and his European blessing

Mangok Mathiang just exudes optimism.

“I’m always winning,” Mathiang told The Pick and Roll.

Such jovial sanguinity emanates from Australia’s most recent NBA debutant, although the context might take some by surprise. It isn’t basketball-related, although it comes at the end of a robust discussion covering Mathiang’s career arc, and recent move to Italian side Vanoli Cremona. Instead, AFL football is the subject matter. Specifically, Mathiang jokes about his fandom within the first sporting obsession to capture his attention.

These days, his loyalties are equally split between the Western Bulldogs, an oft-downtrodden franchise who lived an Australian sporting fairy-tale just two years ago, and Majak Daw --an AFL player who suits up for North Melbourne-- a close friend with whom Mathiang shares so much in common.

“I used to be a Bulldogs fan,” Mathiang explained. “But I really don’t follow footy that well anymore so I just go with Majak.

“Whenever he is playing, I try to support him as much as I can.”

Without diving into the minutiae of Australian footy, it feels like a combination of the Bulldogs and Daw inadvertently symbolise Mathiang, and the pathway he has followed.

The team: a sporting club that rode a romantic narrative to a breakthrough Premiership in 2016, coupled with the athlete: a Sudanese-born competitor who leveraged Australia into a professional sporting career, provides Mathiang with an AFL gathering that evokes healthy ambition, whilst being grounded in a level of assurance that positive vibes will follow.

A summation like that, could easily be Mathiang's perfect descriptor.

He is ambitious and at the same time self-assured, shaped by a journey that went from South Sudan to the NBA. Well, it's the cliffnotes for a voyage that includes stops in Melbourne, Louisville, North Charlotte and now, northern Italy. Surreal is the most omnipresent of adjectives.

“To be honest, it is so crazy,” Mathiang said of his basketball journey. “Because I didn’t really like basketball growing up as a kid. I was a footy player. I loved footy.

“I never really thought basketball could actually do such things. It’s taken me around the world. It’s allowed me to meet such wonderful people and go to such high places in life. The only thing I can do is thank the might of God for staying with me, keeping me healthy, and introducing the game of basketball to me.

“For everybody out there that, really loves basketball, be prepared for a whole lot of travelling and ending up in places that you never thought you’d end up in.”

Mathiang’s latest pit stop is Cremona, home to Italian Seria A Basketball League side Vanoli Cremona. On Thursday, it was announced that the 25-year-old former Melburnian signed a one-year deal with the European outfit. It’s a move that Mathiang admits is something different, but also one that provides a golden opportunity to advance his ultimate ambition.

“I’m blessed to get a chance,” Mathiang said of Vanoli Cremona. “It’s a blessing.”

While Mathiang is right to identify gratitude for a new beginning, it is hoped the European expedition will be over soon. He sees this as a temporary disposition. There is no doubt.

“My main aspiration is to play in the NBA,” Mathiang admitted. “And stay in the NBA permanently. I’m new to this and I know it’s going to take time. [Going to Europe] is me taking another route to try and make that happen.”

As for ensuring a return to the NBA happens soon, Mathiang is well aware of the improvements needed to his game.

I need to get my shot consistent,” Mathiang said. “These days, the game of basketball has changed, and if you are a big that can’t stretch out the floor consistently, even with a mid-range shot, you can’t grow in the game. You can fade away.

“Working on my strength around the rim as well. And just getting my confidence to be a professional. Being confident in college is so different to being confident as a professional. That will go a long way.”

The past 12 months have objectively been a success for Mathiang. He signed a maiden NBA contract with the Charlotte Hornets last August, and made his NBA debut against the Denver Nuggets in October. All told, the 208cm forward appeared in four games with the Hornets, averaging 2.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 5.0 minutes per contest. He also appeared in 43 games (36 starts) for the Hornets G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, averaging 10.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 assists in 25.3 minutes per game.

With most of his rookie NBA season spent in the G League, Mathiang was given an abrupt initiation into one of the most competitive basketball environments in existence. Private jets, millionaire athletes and cutting-edge resources may define the NBA, but their second tier system is devoid of such extravagance.

What the G League lacks in flash, is more than supplanted by a competitive drive commonly focused on one thing: making the big time.

“The only way you can describe the G League is a grind,” Mathiang said. “Everybody is hungry to make it. Everybody is trying to get that NBA contract, or that overseas contract. Whatever it may be. Even the coaches are trying to get NBA jobs.

“Everybody is hungry and trying to make it. That is the positive part, but there are also challenges. Things like the travel, which isn’t that good. Just the luxury of it isn’t the same as the NBA and what everybody thinks it is.”

Mathiang’s four game tenure with the Hornets may have been short-lived, but it offered a glimpse into the professional world he seeks, whilst also validating the progression of on-court competencies.

“It was just a huge sign that hard work actually pays off. I’ve been busting my butt for years now, and the fact that I actually got a chance to make my debut in the NBA. To let me know that I worked hard for this and that I can definitely play in the NBA for a while. All you’ve got to do is keep working hard and your time will definitely come.”

As with all things in life, experience offers the best way to learn. Having now spent 12 months in the NBA system, Mathiang understands that basketball is his profession. He admits that a desire to have fun and enjoy the experience is “cool,” but now appreciates the need to bring his full talents to the table, night in and night out.

This lesson is eventually learnt by all rookies. Luckily for Mathiang, he had two veteran leaders to absorb knowledge from. Playing behind a future Hall of Famer in Dwight Howard, and a multiple time NBA All-Star in Kemba Walker, presented role models to follow.

“They definitely helped me out,” Mathiang explained, “Those guys are professionals and they do it.

“What they taught me is, that, being a professional doesn’t just mean you are professional on the court. It’s also off the court as well. How you carry yourself. To take good care of your body. The people around you and everything going on as well.”

Mangok Mathiang’s story is still evolving. A taste of the NBA now offers the inspiration to keep grinding away from the limelight of American basketball. Just don’t expect his time in Europe to last long. Like every step in his journey, an insatiable thirst for more is pushing him back towards his dream.