A decade ago, Nuni Omot graduated from Mahtomedi as a late bloomer, with a developing basketball game and several inches more to grow.
His talent on the hardwood would eventually take him places he never could have imagined.
As a member of South Sudan's national team, Omot celebrated with thousands of fans last week after making history and putting the country on the world's basketball map.
The youngest nation in the world, founded independently in 2011, South Sudan finished as the top African team in the FIBA World Cup, earning a spot at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
"It's unbelievable," Omot told reporters at the World Cup. "Everything that's happened in these last couple of years, no one ever imagined or dreamed of being in this position."
The 28-year-old Omot's life story is all about overcoming obstacles. He was born at a refugee camp in Kenya to parents who trekked hundreds of miles with his brother to escape war-torn Ethiopia. His family's harrowing journey to settle in Minnesota inspired him to dream big.
"Having this all happen for him is pretty incredible," said Omot's older brother, Aba, who ran track at St. Thomas. "He's done a lot of rapid growth. Some people have a little bit. He just kept getting better and better."
A Division II basketball player at Concordia (St. Paul) out of high school, Omot saw himself as capable of playing at a much higher level. He transferred to junior college and then to Baylor, where he played his last two college seasons, including a Sweet 16 trip in 2016.
Omot, who is of Sudanese and Ethiopian decent, joined the South Sudan national basketball team last year and helped it qualify for the World Cup for the first time. That set the stage for the run in Manila this summer.
They won three games at the World Cup against China, Philippines and Angola to earn the country's first Olympic bid in any sport.
Omot, South Sudan's second-leading scorer with 14.4 points per game, was swept up with emotion last week, telling media how grateful he is for "the chance to walk across the Olympic stage with our flag."
Playing D-I basketball didn't come to mind for Omot when he first suited up for Mahtomedi's basketball team as a junior in high school, a slight but springy standout guard on the junior varsity.
He grew 8 inches to 6-9 by his freshman year in college. Power Five schools finally started paying attention after he left Concordia for Indian Hills Community College in Iowa.
"He progressed so much and worked so hard to achieve his goals," Mahtomedi coach Keith Newman said. "He was growing, and his game was taking off. He always pushed himself hard with extra training."
After transferring to Baylor, Omot went from a redshirt to starter by his senior year in the Big 12. Bears assistant Jared Nuness, who recruited him, will never forget when Omot was reunited with his father at a Baylor game in 2018. They had been apart for two decades because only Omot's brother and mother were able to travel with him to the U.S. in 1996.
"Outside of us winning the national championship, that's probably one of the top three moments for me in the 13 years I've been at Baylor," Nuness said. "Just to see the embrace between him and his father and his whole family. It brought tears to a lot of our eyes. Everybody in that arena was just touched."
Rising hoops talent
Since his college career ended in 2018, Omot has had stints in the NBA G League, but his biggest impact has been internationally. In April, he led Egypt-based Al Ahly to the Basketball Africa League championship. In the process, Omot was the first African player to win the league's MVP award.
"When it came to his goals and what he wanted, he would run through a wall," Omot's brother said. "He's been grinding so hard. Growing up, that's the thing that separated him the most, his determination."
Omot is determined now to help South Sudan rise as a world basketball power.
Two years ago, South Sudan qualified for its first Africa Championships. Former Timberwolves forward Luol Deng took over as the organization's president in 2020. NBA players Carlik Jones and Wenyen Gabriel are the best-known names on the team. But the roster also includes 7-foot teenage NBA prospect Khaman Maluach and former Iowa star Peter Jok, who trained with Omot in Minnesota.
Winning the Olympic berth was a proud moment for South Sudan and added another memorable chapter to Omot's inspiring journey.
"It's going to be very exciting in the future for people to see," Omot said of South Sudanese hoops. "People have to keep their eye out because there's a lot of talent coming out of there."