Georges Niang knows where he’s lacking and that’s been the case for quite a while.
As a high school teammate of current Knicks center Nerlens Noel at Tilton School in New Hampshire, he understood trying to match athletic prowess with a sensational leaper was a poor idea.
“The biggest thing for me was being able to use my deceptively slow speed to my advantage,” the Sixers power forward told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview. “The biggest thing is guys were always faster than me, but if I could change speeds and play at a slow pace it kind of threw their rhythm off, which helped me gain an advantage with being able to score.
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“So playing against Nerlens every day made me realize I had to use that to my advantage to be able to score against him day in and day out in high school. That was huge for me, playing against him … and it helped me realize what things work and what things don’t work.”
Niang, who said he makes sure to keep in touch with Noel and other high school and AAU teammates, has a strong argument to be the NBA’s most self-deprecating player. He might wear that label with pride, too.
Asked for his perspective on Joel Embiid’s highlight block on DeMar DeRozan to seal the Sixers’ Nov. 3 win over the Bulls — a game in which Niang scored 18 points — he gave an honest recollection that night.
“I don’t know if you saw, DeMar drove right past me, so I had a good vantage point,” he said. “Thank you for bringing that up.”
Has Niang always spoken so freely (and humorously) about himself? A native of Methuen, Massachusetts, he learned early that hockey wasn’t the sport for him, which probably didn't hurt with avoiding an inflated self-image.
“I did play ice hockey until I was in the fourth grade,” Niang said after a late-October shootaround. “And then — I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this — but one of the coaches told me I skated like I had a pine cone up my rear end. And that was it for me. Then I stepped to basketball and it’s been great.”
As he tells it, humility helped him reach the professional level and keep growing once he got there.
“If you’ve seen pictures of me when I was 10, 12 years old, you wouldn’t have thought that I’d made it here, ever,” he said. “So I would say I did have to have a couple of looks in the mirror, talk to myself: ‘All right, you’re not good at this. You need to improve at this.’ I wasn’t really … I don’t want to say ‘shown a lot of love,’ but I just had to work for everything.
“So it’s nothing new to me to look myself in the mirror and be like, ‘All right, if you want this dream of yours, you’re going to have to work at X, Y and Z.’ (Being) self-deprecating I feel is definitely one of my strengths, and it’s gotten me where I’m at today.”
With the Sixers, Niang has assumed the biggest role of his NBA career. Part of that is because the team has been heavily depleted by COVID-19 and injuries early this season. However, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers insisted immediately that Niang was an underrated free-agent signing who’d be an integral member of the bench.
Before the team had even started the regular season, Danny Green added another nickname to Niang’s plate.
“He’s like the Army Swiss Knife for us,” Green said. “He does a little bit of everything. I like that nickname for him. Some guys call him the Minivan; some guys call him the Sprinter; some call him the Army Swiss Knife. He’s a great shooter, high-IQ player, can handle the ball a little bit for a four. … He does all the little things we need him to do, a blue-collar guy. But ultimately, a team player. He’s going to fit right in and have that second group moving the ball a lot.”
Niang has met Green’s expectations thus far. Heading into a Tuesday night meeting with the Jazz, Niang's former team, he’s averaged a career-high 12.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists, shooting 39.0 percent from three-point range.
The early returns next to fellow offseason addition (and Rivers recruit) Andre Drummond are very positive. When Niang and Drummond share the court, the Sixers have a plus-17.7 net rating in 329 non-garbage time possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Niang has experienced predictable defensive struggles in matchups against stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Julius Randle, although it’s worth noting that just about every Sixer has been stretched beyond his comfort zone. While on-ball defense is obviously not his best attribute, Niang showed in Utah he’s a good enough defender to play consistent rotation minutes for a contending team. To reach that point, he needed to evaluate himself.
“I think you have to want it,” he said. “It has to be something that you want. I went from just going into games and trying to play defense to scouting guys, watching film, reading up on their tendencies and what they like to do — giving myself better knowledge of how they want to attack. And that has helped me, especially the last couple years. This is my job, so I have to dedicate a lot of time to educate myself mentally and make up for things that I can’t do physically.”
It's not intuitive, but breaking his foot was another major milestone in Niang’s development. Already an excellent and beloved player at Iowa State — he called the school “home” and “the best thing that ever happened to me” — he fractured his right foot during the 2014 NCAA tournament and recognized he wasn’t on a path to NBA success.
Niang lost 25 or so pounds that summer.
“I wanted to continue playing the game and I wanted to be healthy and playing at the best of my ability,” he said. “And I realized that injury limited that, and that’s because I wasn’t in the best shape I could be. So working every day to better my body and take care of myself was going to let me play the game that I love even longer and allow me to chase my dream of playing in the NBA.”
Even after he won the Karl Malone Award as the country’s top power forward and graduated as an all-time Iowa State great, there were valid reasons for NBA front offices to be skeptical of Niang. The Pacers took him 50th in the 2016 draft but didn’t offer regular early-career minutes.
Niang ultimately played 50 G League games across three franchises before sticking in Utah’s rotation and earning his two-year, $6.7 million Sixers contract. The 28-year-old now serves as one of the team's veterans and dishes out advice to youngsters like Paul Reed, also a second-round pick and former G Leaguer.
“I’ve been learning a lot,” Reed said during training camp. “Georges just pointed out something great to me recently. He was saying, ‘Just focus on what you’re elite at.’ And for me, that’s offensive rebounding. He kind of opened my eyes to what I need to focus on more.”
Niang wouldn’t hesitate to tell you he’s not nearly as fast or explosive as Reed. Both are exceptionally passionate about their work, though, and grateful that Sixers fans are never apathetic.
A Celtics fan growing up — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Antoine Walker were among his favorite players — Niang understands the majority of folks in attendance at Wells Fargo Center care more about a player’s effort than his lateral quickness or vertical leap. Whether or not he ever hears “MVP” chants again like he did during the Sixers’ Nov. 1 victory over Portland, Niang is happy with the fit in Philadelphia.
“They’ve been unreal,” Niang said. “The support and energy they bring is second to none. They do a great job of supporting our team and … I think growing up in the Northeast, I can appreciate that. These people want to see you go out there and compete at a high level and work as hard as they do in their everyday jobs — because this is our job. And I can appreciate that, which is one of the reasons why I wake up and try to work as hard as I do.”
There will likely be some bumpiness this year for Niang as he adjusts to higher minutes and expanded on-court responsibilities. Indeed, the Sixers have had a tough time lately without Embiid. Niang has exuded fatigue on occasion, badly missing shots that would typically be routine.
However he performs, it’s important in his mind to tell it exactly as it is. And when in doubt, he'll lean toward selling himself short.
“I think the best ability is being self-aware — knowing yourself, being able to laugh at yourself,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is if you can understand the things you do well and the things you don’t do well, you can humble yourself and realize that you need to attack those things and work at those things every day to continue to get better.
“I’ve never let my ego get in the way of me trying to improve myself, and sometimes that’s some people’s biggest downfall — letting their ego get in the way of their improvement and not knowing what they need to work on.”