Ask almost any NBA rookie what piece of advice they most frequently get, and one answer that almost invariably comes back is they’re told to ‘listen to your veterans’.
In life, absorbing and learning from those who have done it before you is crucial in evolving as a person; on the court, rookies such as South Sudanese-Australian rookie Mangok Mathiang learn they can only elevate their game to another level by playing with veterans such as Dwight Howard.
“Dwight’s a great guy,” Mathiang tells ESPN. “From the first day I met him, he’s been nothing but helpful to me. He took me under his wing. Who’s not great to listen to if not Dwight Howard?” Howard is a player whom Mathinag has always tried to emulate, even picking the No. 12 while at Louisville because that was the veteran’s number; so Mathiang began shadowing Howard from the first day of training camp, trying to absorb as much knowledge as he could from the eight-time All-Star.
Hornets forward Marvin Williams tells ESPN that Mathiang “wants to learn.”
“He kind of follows Dwight a lot, to be honest,” Williams tells ESPN. “Dwight does a great job of teaching him things, and Mangok is very receptive.” Howard, a five-time All-Defensive member and winner of three Defensive Player of the Year awards, is the perfect teacher for Mathiang as both are athletic big men who take pride in their defensive nous. Howard entered the league as an 18-year old in 2004, compared with Mathiang’s entrance at 25, but the South Sudan-born center nevertheless relates to many takeaways from the American’s career.
“At this level, there’s a lot of different things you need to know, and he’s teaching me those little things,” Mathiang says. “He came into this league when he was 18. He was criticized, and he had so much weight on his shoulders, and he handled it like a grown man, like a pro. Just trying to learn little stuff like that. I know I’m not 18, but he’s been through a lot and I know that.”
Howard says the biggest piece of advice he’s given to Mathiang is to just “enjoy the game and the process.”
“He has the opportunity to play the game that he grew up watching,” Howard tells ESPN. “I’ve told him to work as hard as he can. Hard work helps negate any errors that you make. Mangok is already a hard worker and takes pride in it, which is a great characteristic of a young player.”
There’s still some way to go before Mathiang can reach the lofty heights of Howard’s career. First, he must cut his teeth in the NBA’s development league, the G-League. After having gone underrated in 2017, Mathiang signed a two-way contract with the Hornets in August. Under the terms of a two-way deal, Mathiang will split time with the Hornets and their G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm.
So far he’s played just three minutes of an NBA game, but has appeared in six for the Swarm, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Mathiang understands this is all a part of his learning curve.
“To basically play underneath [Howard] and just learn as much as I can [then] coming down to Greensboro and play with the G-League team gives me an opportunity to come in and just put my game to use,” he says. “I’m learning all these bits of information that I can’t put to use probably until next year, or when I get my little spurts [in the NBA] I try my best to do so.
“When I come down here [Greensboro] to actually compete, I am getting better every single day and I get to play, and actually understand the game of basketball and just being a professional.”
Mathiang will have to hang his hat on defense if he is to become a regular rotation guy in the NBA, and Hornets coach Steve Clifford believes there is a number of players on whom he can also model his game, to earn more minutes, before he can reach the high defensive standard set by Howard.
“I’ve told him this a number of times, the guy he needs to study is [Clint] Capela,” Clifford says. “He can run, he runs every time; he can be relentless on the glass and he’s very bright.”
Mathiang says Clifford expressed those sentiments to him as soon as he signed his two-way deal.
“He pulled me aside and he was like, ‘Mangok, your energy is amazing, your instinct for the game is ridiculous and you’re a very smart player,” he says. “You pick things up very easily.'”
“I’m a good screener, I’m a good roller, and when I get to the basket it opens things up for my teammates. Capela’s doing a great job with all of that with the Rockets and they’re playoff contenders, so that’s huge for me to hear that from coach and that’s what I’m striving to make my game like.”
The NBA season is long, and Mathiang already understands the importance of not looking too far ahead. An opportunity to play may present itself, although it is no certainty with four centers ahead of him on the Hornets’ roster. Mathiang nevertheless is using his rookie campaign to build something for the long-term.
“With me it’s just about taking every day one day at a time,” he says. “Just picking things up as much as I can and I feel like I got a great group of guys around me that are teaching me a lot.
“Rookie years are always the foundation of your career. If I can just pick things up as much as I can I’m sure it’s gonna be great.”