Alex Lowry

Teammates for life—Niang, Mitrou-Long bring out the best in each other

by Aaron Falk

The play took just a split second, and somehow it still managed to explain the strength of their bond. It happened in the second half of the Utah Jazz’s Summer League game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Naz Mitrou-Long glanced up and made eye contact with his best friend. A moment later, Mitrou-Long’s inch-perfect pass had gone from the backcourt into the hands of a streaking Georges Niang for a thunderous dunk.

“What did I see?” Mitrou-Long would say when asked about the play later, a smirk growing on his face. “I saw a nice poster. That was big time. I might go purchase that if it’s out there anywhere.

“That’s special, that chemistry,” he continued. “He took off running and he was running faster than I’ve ever seen Georges run, and lo and behold he jumped higher than I’ve ever seen him jump. It was special, a special little connection right there.”

The connection between Mitrou-Long and Niang—teammates, roommates, best friends, and now two of the standouts of this year’s Utah Jazz Summer League—came together almost as quickly as a full-court pass, during a recruiting visit to Iowa State University back in 2011.

“We went to a football game, and when I knew it was real was when my man right here loaned me $50 so I could buy a sweatshirt,” Niang recalled recently.

“Oh my God! I forgot about that!” Mitrou-Long said.

“I ended up paying him back on the ride to the airport,” Niang said. “Us barely knowing each other and him lending me [money] to get a sweatshirt, I knew this guy had a big heart and he was someone I definitely wanted to be around.”

“I knew it was a personal investment,” Mitrou-Long said. “It came back tenfold.”

The two players have been nearly inseparable ever since.

“We’re like Siamese twins,” Niang joked.

Niang and Mitrou-Long spent four years together in Ames, Iowa before starting their separate NBA journeys. Niang was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. After a redshirt senior season for the Cyclones, Mitrou-Long was invited to play for the Utah Jazz Summer League squad in 2017. It wouldn’t be long, however, before their paths crossed.

Niang was playing a G League game in Santa Cruz when his best friend made his NBA debut. Mitrou-Long signed a two-way contract with the Utah Jazz in December and entered the game against the Denver Nuggets on December 26. The guard knocked down his first attempt, a 3-pointer. When he saw the box score, Niang started texting friends and searching online for video of Mitrou-Long’s bucket.

“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Niang said. “He’s a 100-percent shooter from the field in the NBA. I’m sure he’s going to have more 3-pointers to come, so I’ll be expecting him to stay perfect.”

But after he saw video of the shot, Niang sent his friend a text message.

“Why’d you only play two minutes?” he asked

“Bro,” Mitrou-Long replied, “I got my head split open the next play.”

The guard still has a scar above his left eye from the cut he suffered after smashing heads with Denver Nuggets forward Trey Lyles. The mark, Mitrou-Long said, serves as an important reminder to himself.

“I’m not trying to make it the holy shrine of what I’m doing,” he said. “But it was kind of like a welcome-to-the-NBA moment. Even though it was like 30 seconds, it was a taste of what I want, what we want, what any basketball player wants. That’s to reach your ultimate goal and to play at the highest level. Understanding situations and circumstances and what can happen, that’s everything that comes with the scar.

“And it doesn’t look bad. I think people kind of dig it.”

Mitrou-Long’s first taste of the NBA was cut short due partly to the injury, and partly due to his best friend. Shortly after he had made his debut, the Jazz front office decided to use his roster spot to give another player a shot.

Mitrou-Long would head to the Salt Lake City Stars, and the Jazz signed Niang to fill his spot.

“I was worried,” Niang said. “When my agent told me, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that.’ Because that’s my guy and that’s not what I stand for.”

Mitrou-Long put his friend at ease as the reunited in Salt Lake City.

“I got my roommate back. I got my best friend back. I got somebody to push me every day,” Mitrou-Long said. “It was easy to get over because it’s somebody you know puts in the work and deserves it.”

Niang and Mitrou-Long spent the remainder of last season living together, practicing together and playing together in the NBA and G League.

“You leave college not knowing if you’ll ever see your teammates again,” Mitrou-Long said. “Me and him, the chemistry we have, I felt like it just clicked right away.”

The two players have spent most of the summer training together, preparing for Summer League with an eye on NBA training camp invites.

“We want to contribute to winning and just showcase what we’ve been working on all summer,” Mitrou-Long said.

“In this league, all it takes is one opportunity for you to seize, then you’re golden and you consistently get in the rotation and make things happen,” Niang added. “You just have to be ready all the time.”

Through the first two games of the Utah Jazz Summer League, Niang and Mitrou-Long have been consistent and steadying forces for their squad. Niang has averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds a night, while Mitrou-Long is averaging 13 points, five assists and five rebounds.

“We just have a competitive nature,” Niang said. “How other people pressure each other with going out drinking or doing things like that, we pressure with, ‘Did you work out day? Did you do yoga? Did you do this?’ Being around that all the time, we know we’re making each other better. That’s one part of our friendship.”

Blood is thicker than Water. #FamilyForever

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