Blazers rookie Duop Reath's unlikely journey to the NBA

INSIDE THE VISITOR’S locker room at the Frost Bank Center in San Antonio, the Portland Trail Blazers are getting their belongings together, heading home after an exhausting four-game road trip in late January.

As players head out to the bus, small pink backpacks can be spotted on each of the Trail Blazers’ rookies — a light-hearted rookie tradition in both the NBA and MLB.

Portland, the fifth-youngest team in the league this season weighted by playing time, has five such backpacks floating around the locker room on this night. On Saturday, the Blazers became just the second team since starters were first tracked in 1971 to start five rookies in a game.

Among the sea of pink, one rookie stands out in particular, not because of his accolades or his draft position, but because of his unique journey to the NBA. At 27 years old, Duop Reath is the third-oldest player on Portland’s squad, just behind 30-year-old Jerami Grant and 31-year-old Malcolm Brogdon.

Despite that, Reath is still a rookie. And he still has rookie duties. So as players trickle out to walk to the bus, Reath gladly picks up his pink backpack and ducks out through the visiting training room.

From the corner of the locker room, Deandre Ayton takes notice.

“Humility takes you a long way and that’s what it’s doing for this young man,” Ayton tells ESPN, referring to Reath as a young man even though Reath is his elder by 25 months. “And he’s the true definition of hard work beats talent.”

DUOP REATH’S JOURNEY to the NBA was far from conventional. He was born in the village of Waat in what is now South Sudan in 1996, when the country was in the midst of the second Sudanese Civil War. He and his family lived in a small hut. He didn’t own a pair of shoes.

At 5 years old, Reath, his parents and two siblings at the time (Reath is the oldest of seven children) were forced out of their home because of the war and traveled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where they stayed for nearly two and a half years.

When asked about his earliest memories, Reath described how he leaned on sports.

“Just soccer, man,” Reath told ESPN. “A lot of soccer. A lot of hanging around with my friends and taking care of my younger siblings.”

Reath credits his parents for giving him what he calls a “pretty decent childhood,” shielding him from the atrocities of his family’s reality. And while he was out playing barefoot soccer on dirt pitches, his family was searching for a way out.

In 2005, that opportunity finally arrived. With the help of his uncle who lived in Brisbane, Australia, Reath and his family moved some 8,000 miles from home to begin a new life.

He didn’t know English. Didn’t know how to read or write. He yearned for home.

“It was just a shock,” Reath said. “I wanted to go back to camp. I wanted to just go back to my friends. I wanted to just be in a place I was familiar with.”

Reath says it wasn’t until he was 12 years old, when the family moved to Perth, that he started to adapt.

It was also in Perth where Reath’s interest in sports grew. His dreams of playing professional soccer were compounded by his dabbling in Australian Rules Football. He liked hitting people — but he continued to grow.

Reath, like other South Sudanese youngsters in Perth, eventually gravitated toward basketball. It was a perfect fit.

Realizing he was better than the average player, Reath joined what he called an out-of-school league playing in the South Sudanese Australian National Basketball Association, which held two national tournaments yearly with teams from across the country.

Soon after, his life changed forever.

MARCUS KING’S TRIP to Australia started out as a birthday present to himself.

It was 2014 and King was an assistant coach at Lee College, a small junior college in Baytown, Texas, about 30 miles east of Houston. One of King’s former players, Deng Deng, a South Sudan native, told him about a tournament on the other side of the world.

Word of King’s arrival had spread, and when he landed in Penrith, Australia, a local videographer who was friends with Deng found him and said he needed to come check out this 6-foot-10 kid about to start his final year of high school.

That’s when King saw Reath for the first time.

“Here’s this 6-10 dude running up and down the court and you could see flashes,” King told ESPN. “He had nice touch. He was long. Still raw. But he just played hard. He had a great presence on the floor.”

After the game, King introduced himself to a hesitant Reath — and offered him a scholarship.

“I just thought it was just another American coming here,” Reath said. “I didn’t really understand what he was talking about.”

Reath dismissed the offer. So the following day, King tried again. This time, he was more assertive.

“I was very, very intentional and very matter of fact,” King said. “I said I believe in you. You could really do something with the right guidance.”

Eventually Reath and his parents agreed and, following his graduation, the 18-year-old was on his way to the United States for the first time to play basketball.

“I didn’t really know much about America,” Reath said. “So I thought Texas was just cowboys and everyone was on their horses. That’s the picture I had of it.”

Immediately after he arrived, King pushed him. There were 5:30 a.m. workouts. There were hard practices.

In Australia, Reath was bigger, faster and stronger. That wasn’t the case at Lee.

“It was tough,” Reath said. “King would say he was trying to send me home at first. He said if I wasn’t going to adapt and get better, he was going to send me home. So that used to motivate me to get better. [King] had a plan and everything in mind for sure.”

In his first season at Lee College, Reath averaged 6.9 points and 5.4 rebounds

Reath was playing against former Division I and II athletes who had transferred down. Realizing he could handle his own against them, he knew he was destined for the next level.

Heading into his sophomore year, Reath was ranked as a top 10 juco prospect in the country, and after that season, in which he averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, Reath transferred to LSU.

The Tigers went 10-21 in Reath’s first season. A year later, the team hired Will Wade and went 18-15. It wasn’t the success Reath had hoped for, but his 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game were enough to earn him a spot on the Dallas Mavericks’ 2018 Las Vegas Summer League squad.

Reath played a total of just three games and 23 minutes for a stacked Mavericks team that featured former lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr., future All-Star Jalen Brunson, and a pair of late second-round picks ahead of him on the depth chart at center. He had seven points, 10 rebounds total and missed both of his 3-point attempts. His NBA dreams had ended as quickly as they’d emerged.

In August, Reath signed with KK FMP, a top-level team in Belgrade, Serbia.

Again, he found himself in another country, another home, adjusting this time to the differences of European basketball for the first time.

He spent two seasons there before moving on to KK Crvena Zvezda, who also play in the Serbian League. A brief stint with the Brooklyn Nets in summer league in 2019 hadn’t produced another NBA opportunity, and a lack of playing time with Crvena Zvezda forced Reath back to Australia and the NBL in 2021.

It was there that Reath had another opportunity — a chance to represent the Australian national team at the postponed 2021 Olympics.

MATT NIELSEN, AN assistant coach for both the San Antonio Spurs and the Australian men’s national team, remembers the first time he saw Reath.

“We had a four- or five-day camp and you just saw it, you just saw something different in him for our team,” Nielsen said. “He could stretch the floor but was also long and athletic. He can move well and stuff like that. And actually, any time we gave him a chance in practice, he just produced.”

It was at that camp that Portland teammate Matisse Thybulle also met Reath for the first time.

“I knew of Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Dante Exum and that was about it,” Thybulle told ESPN. “Never heard of Duop Reath.”

Reath made the team that year and went to Tokyo as a floor-spacing big for the Boomers, who went on to win the bronze medal. He saw action in four of Australia’s six games, averaging 2.8 points on 80% shooting.

That same summer, Reath signed with the Illawarra Hawks, a top-level team in the NBL, coached by Australian national team coach Brian Goorjian. It was his third team in his second country in three seasons.

In 30 games that season, he averaged 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds per game and made 43.8% of his 3-pointers. The Hawks finished with the second-best record in the NBL.

That summer, Reath played with the Phoenix Suns’ summer league squad, but in his first start he suffered an ankle injury after scoring 13 points. Just like that, his summer was over.

Three months later, Reath found himself in China, playing for the Qingdao Eagles. In 39 games, Reath averaged 18.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. When that season was over, Reath joined Al Riyadi Beirut of the West Asia Super League. In just 10 games there, Reath averaged 21.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

“When I was in China, I was playing with a lot of freedom and playing in Lebanon with a lot of freedom,” Reath said. “And then when you play with that kind of freedom and you know what you’re capable of, then you feel confident. You feel very confident.”

After the season, Reath returned to Las Vegas for his fourth summer league, this time with the Trail Blazers.

And for the first time, he was able to find a groove, averaging 13 points and 7.4 rebounds off the bench.

After five years and five teams and four countries, it was clear to both Nielsen and Thybulle that some NBA team was going to give Reath a chance. It was just a matter of who — and when.

THYBULLE REMEMBERS THE turning point for Reath. It was Aug. 20, 2023, and Reath’s Australian national team was facing the French national team in a World Cup exhibition.

With just over three minutes remaining and Australia down by four against France in Tokyo, Reath caught a pass in the lane and barrelled toward the basket. There was one man between him and a thunderous slam: three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

No matter. Reath took one step, jumped from outside the restricted area, and pounded the ball through Gobert’s outstretched arm. Australia went on to win 78-74.

It remains Thybulle’s favorite Reath memory.

“He became a new player in a sense,” Thybulle said, “because the player I had played with at the Olympics versus the player I played with at the World Cup had similarities, but in a sense were vastly different as far as the skill and talent level.”

Following the World Cup, the Trail Blazers brought Reath into training camp, where Ayton, the former No. 1 overall pick who days earlier had been dealt from the Suns to Portland, said he took it upon himself to test the well-traveled rookie as much as possible. He learned quickly it wouldn’t be so easy.

“He ain’t backing down from s—,” Ayton said. “He loves the challenge and he competes. I tested him and I’m a crazy m—–f—–. But Wop got it. Wop can play on any team in this league. Any team.”

Still, Reath had to prove himself further.

He was one of Portland’s final cuts before the start of the regular season, then signed a two-way deal two days later. His NBA journey would begin in the G League.

Reath’s G-League career lasted just one game.

The Rip City Remix made their debut Nov. 10 against the South Bay Lakers. With Portland in town to face the Los Angeles Lakers two nights later, Reath put on a show, finishing with 37 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while shooting 15-of-20 overall and 5-of-6 from 3-point range.

“After the game, everybody’s joking as we’re walking out the gym like, ‘Well, Wop just played himself out of the G-League’,” Thybulle recalled.

Two days later, Reath made his NBA debut against the Los Angeles Lakers.

And it was everything Reath imagined it would be.

“I told Matisse as soon as I walked on the court to do my warmup, the lights were a little bit brighter at Arena,” Reath said. “It felt like this is how I visualized it, the warmup, my pre-game warmup, everything was the way I visualized it. And I was just telling him, yeah, ‘Man, dreams do come true.’

In 13 minutes, Reath had 11 points and was 3-of-8 from 3-point range.

As a two-way player, Reath was eligible to bounce back and forth between the Blazers and the Remix, but he never went back to the G-League.

After making his NBA debut, he played in Portland’s next 15 games, starting four of them, averaging 8.2 points and 2.8 rebounds.

Soon, though, another roadblock appeared.

Two-way players are only eligible to be on the active NBA roster for 50 games in a season. Though he’d been inactive for the first eight games of the season, Portland’s final game before the All-Star break represented Reath’s 40th game. Barring a change, he’d only be able to play in 10 of Portland’s remaining 28 games.

But the Blazers saw the value in an undrafted player who ranks eighth among all rookies in 3-point field goals and ninth in win shares according to Basketball Reference.

So after a two-decade journey that took him from South Sudan to Kenya to Australia to Texas to Louisiana to Serbia to China to Lebanon back to Australia then finally to Portland, on Feb. 16 Reath inked a three-year, $6.2 million contract, making him a full-fledged NBA player.

His journey meant the world to him and to his family back in Australia, most of whom have never seen him play an NBA game in person. His family watches the replays the following day because of the time difference.

Lately, he keeps a small reminder of home with him at all times. He wears the initials “A.R.” on his wrist tape for a family friend, Alier Riak, who was killed in Australia in 2022. Reath likened him to a little brother.

So when Reath steps on the court, now with that full contract in hand, it gives him a reassurance that everything — and every place — he went through was worth it.

“I felt a sense of gratitude,” Reath said. “Reflecting on my journey, I feel like every experience played a major role to put me in the position I am today.”

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