Posted at 9:40 am on December 20, 2016

The Incredible Journey of Duop Reath

From his war-torn homeland to the heart of LSU’s basketball team, the Tigers’ center has taken a rare path from South Sudan to South Louisiana

Duop Reath | Photo by Sean Richardson
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By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

Editor’s Note: This story appears in the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, available on newsstands across Baton Rouge now or available for purchase online.

W

atch his feet. That’s where the measure of Duop Reath begins and ends, where his 6-foot-10 frame meets the earth, or leaves it, depending on how you look at things. His stature, like all of life, Reath knows, is a matter of mere perspective.

It’s not exactly natural to look downward when observing giants, but resist the temptation to awe at his height from the top down, and instead look from the bottom up at Reath. Check out his purple-and-gold Nikes – size 15, so plenty large enough to fill the shoes of the far more hyped Australian who preceded him at LSU – and notice how quickly they cover the 4,700 square feet of a basketball court.

On offense, they are the dream of basketball fundamentalists. His footwork with the ball in his hands is straight out of a coaching clinic. Left, right, shot. Right, left, shot. Drop step, dunk. Jab step, jumper. Spin, plant, and a finish with either hand. Not every shot goes in, but rarely – if ever – is the misfire a pedalian problem.

On defense, they are the nightmare of would-be scorers. His footwork with the ball in a foe’s hands is a wonder and a terror. Against bigger centers, they are firmly planted in place, toughened by forces far more formidable than the mass of a man. Against smaller guards, they are nimble enough to dance in step with quick dribblers, ready to slide into driving lanes or launch him forward in a contest. In help, they are eager to assist a teammate and still able to recover back to their assigned station. And they are always – always – ready to propel him skyward when the rim requires his protection.

When he cuts, they squeak, rubber birds chirping the soundtrack of the sport. They do not lumber with heaviness, like most of his peers who near 7-feet. They are rapid, like well-trained fingers dancing on a keyboard.

And in transition, they are silent, the balls of them bouncing off the hardwood with the quickness of a player a foot shorter, moving to the next spot before they can make a sound. He covers the length of the floor in fewer strides and with more urgency than seems possible.

He sprints like he’s running from something terrible, or like he’s running toward something wonderful.

That, too, depends on perspective. And for Duop Reath, it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s one or the other, both or neither. He’s just glad to have a nice pair of shoes for the journey.

“Off the court, I’m real chill, relaxed, a fun guy to be around,” Reath says. “On the court, it’s a different story.”

 

THROUGH THE FIRST 10 games of the season, no one has meant more to the success of the 2016-17 LSU Basketball team than Reath.

That’s not subjective sportswriter-speak, a qualitative lede designed to support a narrative that may or may not hold up to stronger scrutiny. It is very much measurable. After 10 games, Reath’s presence has made a 29 point difference for LSU: with him on the floor, the Tigers are beating opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions, according to data provided to Tiger Rag by Open Look Analytics; without him, they are losing by 14 points per 100 possessions.

The best evidence of this trend was LSU’s biggest win of the early non-conference schedule. In the Tigers’ 84-65 shellacking of previously-unbeaten Houston, Reath played just a handful of first half minutes before picking up two fouls, and the Tigers led by a single point at the half. Upon his return, LSU put together an 18-4 run en route to a 45-27 second half score line.

29: LSU is 29 points better with Reath on the floor than with him off of it.

More remarkable is that Reath only scored 5 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in the win, well below his season averages of 15.3 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game. But, as he’s done often in his still young LSU career, he brought out the best of his teammates. His five blocks shored up LSU’s defense, and his presence in the post on offense drew help defenders and opened things up for his teammates.

“He helps the team in a way that I really can’t explain,” says junior forward Craig Victor.

“We’re a different team when he’s out there,” adds junior guard Jalyn Patterson.

They sure sound different. The first word teammates and coaches reach for when talking about Reath? Energy. The visual manifestation of that energy is obvious, from the way he dives for loose balls and hedges hard on screens before sprinting to recover, to his full-court sprints on fast breaks and his physical exertions as on on-ball or help-side defender.

“He’s an energy guy,” says freshman Kieran Hayward, who came to LSU, like Reath, from Australia. “He’s always up and down the floor, and he’s always got your back.”

Reath’s energy is ever-present. He is as active on game day when the lights come on and the fans are cheering as he is under the fluorescent lights of the LSU basketball practice facility with only the team’s managers watching from the film deck.

“He brings it every day,” says Victor, who would know. He and Reath battled all preseason in drills. “Even those long practices where you have three or four practices in a row, and you are sore. He still brings it.”

The audial manifestation of that energy is more subtle – but only slightly. Off the floor, Reath is quiet and soft spoken. At the postgame podium, it’s a point of pride among reporters to ask him a question that elicits a response of more than a handful of words.

On the floor? “He doesn’t shut up,” says Victor.

“Off the court, I’m real chill, relaxed, a fun guy to be around,” Reath says. “On the court, it’s a different story.”

To watch Reath in practice or a game is to see a man transformed. His mouth moves more than his feet, and his feet are in perpetual motion. He barks at his teammates when they need an energy boost or a competitive chastisement. He talks friendly trash to them, too, when he gets the better of them in drills. He screams “ball” when he closes out on his man and “help” when his teammates do the same.

“Off the court, I’m real chill, relaxed, a fun guy to be around,” Reath says. “On the court, it’s a different story.”

Between the lines, everything is a competition to Reath. Against opponents, when the clock is running, it’s about making sure his team finishes with more points than the other. Against his team, when the practice jerseys are on, he’s hungry for every rebound, determined to cover the most ground, and dedicated to being the most verbose.

“It’s competitiveness,” he says. “I’ve always been competitive like that. No matter what it is. So I try to be the loudest.”

“He talks – a lot,” adds Hayward. “He says whatever he wants, whenever he wants. As soon as he steps in those lines, it’s like he’s home.”

If energy is the first word Reath’s game brings to mind, versatility is the second. He entered December ranked first on the team in rebounds and blocks, second in points and 3-point shooting, and third in steals. He can defend multiple positions and score in multiple ways. Not to dabble too much in hypotheticals, but his coaches say he’s actually exactly what LSU needed a year ago during its disappointing 19-14 season that ended without postseason play. That’s true of his skill set, and truer of his mindset.

“The attributes that he brings to the team is something we were missing last year,” says LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “Shot-blocking, a post defender, the ability to run the floor, energy, a defensive post guy and the ability to step out and shoot the ball on the perimeter. He has all of those things working for him.”

In a way, he’s an amalgam of the best qualities possessed by the best bigs of the Jones era. Like Jordan Mickey, he’s a lengthy, rangy defender who can guard multiple positions and protect the rim, as evidenced by his 2.1 blocks per game. Like Johnny O’Bryant, he’s money from mid-range and can score with his back to the basket – and unlike Bryant, he can extend to the 3-point line, knocking down 44 percent of his treys so far. Like Ben Simmons, the man he’s tasked with replacing this season, he can create his own shot off the dribble in the half court, and he’s deadly on the break, an end-to-end rim-runner who always offers a target in transition.

“He’s a hell of a player – rebounding, being able to shoot the ball, stretch the floor,” says junior guard Branden Jenkins, who was also Reath’s teammate in junior college. “He’s like LaMarcus Aldridge or Dirk Nowitzki – he can do everything.”

“When you have somebody like that on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” adds Victor, “it brings a tremendous amount of versatility to the team.”

And yet in so many ways that have nothing to do with basketball, Reath is nothing like any player to take the court in the Jones era. That’s because no player has taken a path to the program quite like his.

 

WAR AND DEATH surrounded Reath the first nine years of his life. He was born in 1996 in what is now – and has been since its independence in 2005 – South Sudan, nine years before the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War. Then, though, it was simply Sudan, as war torn a nation as the world has ever seen.

The conflict Reath was born into began in 1983 (at 22 years in length, it’s among the longest civil wars in modern history) but was really an extension of The First Sudanese Civil War, which raged from 1955 to 1972. Millions died in the conflicts, including many with whom Reath shared a bloodline.

“It was dangerous,” Reath says. “The war, the fighting, wasn’t that far. I lost a lot of my uncles to the war. Dad and mom’s brothers – mostly my mom’s brothers.”

So Reath stayed home. His father, Thomas Duop Reath, fought back through religion, working through the church to spread the gospel of peace. His mother, Nyanen Juch, stayed home with Duop, his cousins, and his siblings. The eldest of seven, Reath’s job – at an age most children are watching cartoons and playing with Legos – was to be the man of the house.

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“It makes you grow a little bit quicker,” Reath says. “It makes you more mature. You don’t really have a childhood like that. You have to take care of everybody else at a very young age.”

Reath never strayed from the village. The family lived in what he calls a hut. He had no bed and no shoes. To pass the time, the children played barefoot soccer with a makeshift ball made by wrapping clothes around a balloon. Meanwhile, blood – some of it his own family’s – filled the streets he played on every day.

“It makes you grow a little bit quicker,” Reath says. “It makes you more mature. You don’t really have a childhood like that. You have to take care of everybody else at a very young age.”

“It was tough, but that was the lifestyle we were living at the time,” Reath says. “You get really accustomed to it.”

Fortunately for him and his family, Reath’s father had a cousin who had escaped the country and moved to Australia. This cousin offered to sponsor the Reaths as refugees, an offer Thomas willingly accepted. Duop doesn’t remember much, other than packing a bag one night – “there wasn’t much to pack,” he says – and a shoeless walk of two-plus hours to a bus station, where a ride to Kakuma, the site of a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, awaited them.

A few months in Kakuma passed, and the Reaths headed east for a welcome, if unfamiliar, new home in Perth, Australia. Nine-year-old Duop arrived down under speaking only his native Nuer tongue and without a single day of formal school to his name.

“No English,” he says. “I didn’t know no ABCs. I didn’t know how to count. I had to start from scratch.”

Fortunately, his second cousins – and plenty of television watching – helped him adapt linguistically and culturally. Soon, he was fluent, and his frame and athleticism made him an instant star on the soccer field and in Aussie rules football. He was an imposing center back in the former, and a bruising tackler in both. But the 6-foot-5 frame he entered high school with predestined him for a different sport.

“I got taller than everybody else,” he says. “Friends, everybody started suggesting basketball is probably the sport for me.”

Reath took them at their words. At the behest of a PCYC (essentially the Australian equivalent of YMCA) coach named Helen Fisher, he took the aggression and agility honed on the familiar fields and brought them to the court.

There was, of course, a learning curve.

“Everything was a foul when I started playing,” he says. “I just remember grabbing people, hitting people. I just wanted to run up and down. I just remember fouling people.

“But it didn’t take me that long to pick it up. For a guy my size, I feel like I’m pretty coordinated, and I can move.”

His ability to move – it would take Reath farther than he ever imagined.

 

Lee College Basketball 2015

MARCUS KING TRAVELED halfway around the world to find a player for Lee College, the small juco in Baytown, Texas where he’s been an assistant coach for seven seasons. He needed a forward to replace several D-1 bound bigs, a tradition of sorts for the program now known as a feeder school to some of the country’s best programs.

Turns out, the trip was well worth it.

At the suggestion of Deng Deng, a Lee prospect from South Sudan whom LSU recruited heavily in 2014 but ended up at Baylor, King took a flight to Sydney and made the short drive west to Penrith, Australia. There, he took in the bi-annual South Sudanese Australian Summer Slam. Hosted by the South Sudanese Australian National Basketball Association, the tournament features the best prospects from around the country.

Reath was one of those prospects in July 2014, and King offered him on the spot.

“I was really intrigued by his length, his size, his skillset,” says King. “I thought he had an opportunity to do what he’s doing now.”

Playing college basketball had bounced around Reath’s mind a time or two, but King’s offer was the first time it seemed like a reality. Saying yes was a no-brainer.

“He asked me, do I want to get better? Do I want to further my education after high school? I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ He said, ‘Come to America. You can give yourself an opportunity to better your life.’”

Reath’s transition to the college ranks took time. He averaged just 6.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game off the bench in his first season at Lee. At times, he flashed his vast potential, shooting 56.6 percent from the floor and blocking 29 shots on the season. More importantly, he grew up away from the court.

“Down there they treat you like a grown man,” he says. “You have to get everything done on your own. I’ve got to be responsible. So I felt like it really helped me to be a better man.”

Becoming a better basketball player was more of a project. According to King, Reath’s work ethic wasn’t an issue. He arrived eager to improve, his motor running and ready to go. He just didn’t know how to get there, yet.

“When Duop came to us for the fall semester, he knew how to work,” says King. “He didn’t know what to work on. His freshman year, he didn’t understand how hard to play, but he stayed consistent and tried to work on stuff.”

Physically, Reath was fine. The strength, speed, and size, the things that can’t be taught, they were all available. In only his fifth collegiate game, he exploded for 28 points and 18 rebounds. But more often than not, Reath struggled to tap into those qualities in his first year. In the remaining 25 games of his freshman season, he only reached double figures in scoring seven times. Just twice more did he eclipse 10 rebounds. His averages over the last eight outings of the 2014-15 season: 3.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

In King’s eyes, it was a matter of trust for Reath. Trusting others, and, critically, trusting himself.

“He was raw,” King says. “There were pieces, but it was wasn’t the polish you see now. He’s a very intelligent person, so getting him to open up and trust, that was the biggest thing. Once he saw, he started to realize, I am 6-10, and I’m able to do things guys 6-6 and 6-7 do. I’ll be good if I keep working.

“Once he understood the time commitment, the intensity he had to bring on a daily basis, he really took off.”

The numbers bear that out. The next season, his last at Lee and with scholarships hanging in the balance, Reath was a new player. He averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds, with 80 blocks and a 60.7 field goal percentage, both second in Region XIV. He added the 3-point shot to his game, shooting 35 percent from deep, and he became a leader of an explosive Lee College team.

“Every day,” King told Reath, “you have to wake up to fight for what you want.”

The offers followed. Virginia Tech. Oklahoma State. Oregon. UConn. And then, of course, LSU. Reath and Jenkins signed with the Tigers in November, but despite Reath’s giant strides from year one to year two, when the Runnin’ Rebels’ season ended in early March, King invited him into the office for what he calls “a man moment.” The two spoke about what it was like to play in the SEC, Reath’s goals – he wanted to be a pro – and what he needed to do to get there.

The work he’d put in for his sophomore season wasn’t enough. Once again, King needed more from his player.

“Every day,” he told Reath, “you have to wake up to fight for what you want.”

Those words hit home with Reath. He, more than most, knows what it is to wake up to a fight. The message stuck. So King’s 5:30 a.m. workouts that postseason? Piece of cake – Reath didn’t miss one. The three-a-day workouts King ran from spring through summer? Reath would’ve made a fourth, had it been asked of him. The improvements Reath made from year one to year two? He blew past them in the time between finishing at Lee and starting at LSU.

“Last spring after the season, you could see there was a different energy, a different focus, a different work ethic,” says King. “He was committed to making himself great, not just good.”

In the wake of the best season of his career, Reath was more driven than ever. For the first time, he realized not just where he came from. He realized where he could go, too.

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IF ANYONE CAN relate to Reath, it’s Victor, his partner in the post in games and his rival around the rim in practices.

Victor grew up in impoverished New Orleans. He survived the city’s violence, while friends died before 16. So when he sees Reath fighting for first place honors during sprint work after practice, or playing through a busted lip or a sprained ankle in a relatively trivial individual drills, he understands what’s driving him.

“You always remember where you come from, the conditions that you were in,” Victor says. “So when people see him out there running the floor hard, they’re like, ‘Damn.’ But no. He has something to fight for. He could be on the other end where he has to pick up a gun and go to war every day.

“He’s not out there just playing basketball. He’s playing for a reason.”

Chief among those reasons: Reath’s parents, the mother and father who protected him from the same fates suffered by his uncles, who moved him to safety, and who set him on the path from South Sudan to South Louisiana.  Neither has seen their son play a minute of college basketball. His father works in a casino; his mother in a day care. They don’t know, says King, “if he’s Michael Jordan or a scrub.” In their weekly FaceTime conversations with their son, they ask more about his grade point average than his points per game average.

Whether they know it or not, they push him in the moments he needs pushing most.

“Family is everything,” Reath says. “I do everything for my family to make sure they have a good future.”

There, then, is the explanation for Reath’s drive, his competitive fire, the fuel that keeps his feet moving. He’s seen hard work, the fruits it bears and the transformations it’s capable of producing. It’s in his DNA.

“Seeing how hard his mom and dad worked to keep the family together, to go to a better life, he saw that sacrifice and wanted to let his parents know he respects and appreciates what they did for them,” says King.

“He refuses to let them down.”

That’s good news for the Tigers, who will need every bit of drive Reath can give them to make a run at March Madness. His inside-out versatility and non-stop motor makes the team go. He sets a standard that’s impossible for teammates to ignore.

“He wanted to let his parents know he respects and appreciates what they did for them,” says King. “He refuses to let them down.”

It’s also good news for the country Reath once left. South Sudan still tugs at his heart. At Lee’s graduation ceremony, he wore a shawl honoring his native land, the youngest nation in the world. This summer, he earned an invite to play with the South Sudanese national team, but declined in the name of compliance, so as not to jeopardize his eligibility at LSU.

Reath has covered plenty of ground since he was 9, but he’s yet to return to his homeland. He hopes to change that soon.

“I definitely want to go back,” he says. “After I graduate from college, I want to go back and see how my family’s doing, see how the country’s doing, see what I can do to help.”

Those feet – once without shoes, and now clad by Nike’s finest; feet that cover the length and width of a basketball court with alarming agility; feet that make Reath a formidable SEC forward and a potential pro – will one day walk, again, on the soil of South Sudan.

Each step, in the meantime, is part of Duop Reath’s remarkable journey – inspired by memory, and far from complete.

“You think about people out there who if they were in my shoes right now, they would take advantage of this opportunity,” says Reath. “So I have to take advantage of it.”

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[…] Duop Reath scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but slow starts to each half dug a hole too deep for LSU to come back from, and missed rebound opportunities on a pair of late Vanderbilt free throw misses proved costly, as the Tigers dropped their third straight and first SEC road game, 77-71 to Vanderbilt. […]

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[…] – Wade will have to find solutions, likely from his perimeter, to fill in the gaps. Epps and Duop Reath will be the Tigers’ only available post players, with the rest of the available scholarship […]

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[…] to come here and witness my last senior home game,” said Reath, who told Tiger Rag last year his parents had never seen him play college ball. “They got a game tonight at 6, and it’s a four-hour drive to Houston, so they had to […]