Niang Living Up To Expectations

It's just three games, three exhibition games at that, but Larry Bird's initial analysis of Georges Niang holds up well.

Bird drafted Niang with the 50th overall pick in the June draft, an area normally viewed as the front office equivalent of a halfcourt heave, but the early – perhaps premature – returns are intriguing.

"Overall we feel his game is as a basketball player," Bird said at the time. "He's a true basketball player. He knows how to play. He'll get the ball to the players who are open. We're very high on him. I'm not going to sit here and tell you he's an All-Star, but I think he can help our team."

Niang has backed up that description in the Pacers' preseason games, particularly Saturday's loss at Chicago. He scored 16 fourth-quarter points, hit 6-of-8 shots, including 4-of-6 3-pointers, grabbed a couple of rebounds, passed out an assist and had a turnover.

Such a performance could easily be shrugged off as a guy with a hot hand getting over in garbage time of a one-sided game, but Niang has showed similarly encouraging characteristics throughout training camp practices and the other exhibitions. Through three games, he's averaging 10.3 points, hitting 52 percent from the field. He had 12 points and eight rebounds in the first one at New Orleans, then a forgettable three-point outing on 1-of-4 shooting against Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last Thursday.

Niang has looked like a basketball player. He's gotten the ball to players who are open. And while Bird hasn't been available for comment, Pacers' coach Nate McMillan is high on the rookie. He hardly considers him an All-Star at this point, but believes he can help the team.

This season.

That the question about playing time even comes up for a late second-round draft pick is a compliment to Niang. Normally the best such a player can hope for is a question about being on the final roster. That seems a given for him, and getting something beyond meaningless end-of-game minutes is a possibility.

Niang is regarded as a "four" in the Pacers' offense, a playmaker who can stretch the floor and force defenders to the perimeter, where he and others can create amid the luxurious surroundings of an open foul lane. He'll play behind starter Thad Young. Veteran Lavoy Allen also will contend for minutes there, and C.J. Miles and Paul George could get minutes there as well when McMillan goes with a smaller lineup.

He expects to find minutes for Niang, however, somewhere along the way. Injuries could create an opening. So could his performance.

"With the long NBA season, there's certainly going to be an opportunity for him to play," McMillan said following Monday's practice.

Niang isn't concerned. He's a player out of central casting for a Disney movie, the just-happy-to-be-here rookie with no complaints or selfish interests. In print, his comments might sound like sappy cliches. In person, they sound sincere.

"I just want them to know when my number is called I'll be ready," he said. "I'm just trying to learn every day and become better a little bit each day."

Niang's last two games have come against the Bulls, creating a meaningful experience for him. Chicago is coached by Fred Hoiberg, his former coach at Iowa State. Hoiberg recruited Niang out of a private high school in New Hampshire, spotting him when he went to recruit teammate Nerlens Noel. He had him for three seasons at Iowa State before departing for Chicago, and calls Niang his favorite all-time player to have coached. Niang, in turn, calls Hoiberg a "father figure" and gives him credit for helping him prepare for the NBA.

They have plenty in common. Hoiberg was drafted 52nd by the Pacers, two spots lower than Niang. Hoiberg lasted 10 years in the NBA, the first four with the Pacers, on smarts and shot-making. And maybe it's just a coincidence, but Niang, upon learning he wouldn't be able to wear his college number (31) with the Pacers because it had been retired in honor of Reggie Miller, chose 32 – which happened to be Hoiberg's number at Iowa State.

"It's always great to see him," Niang said. "I love him to death. I'm thankful a guy like him mentored me at that point of my life and still does to this day."

"His knowledge of the game is extremely large. Just his temperament and demeanor and how he lets stuff roll off his back and can bounce back to the next play, the next game. As a rookie you need to have amnesia and forget about what happened in the past and get on to the next play and try to get a little better each day."

That falls into the category of "basketball IQ," which Niang has in abundance. It also includes court awareness and decision-making, which – along with hitting perimeter shots – are his best hope for overcoming his lack of elite athleticism. He did that at Iowa State well enough to earn second- and third-team All-American honors as a junior and senior and average 20.5 points as a senior. He thinks it will allow him to at least survive for a long time in the NBA.

"When you're moving up a level, you have to be able to think the game even at a faster rate," Niang said. "I'm trying to watch as much film to see tendencies and see where I can use my smarts to out-smart a guy who is more athletic than me.

"My abilities are going to allow me to continue to make plays for others and spread defenses out. With the way the game is going, that can really help us as a team."

McMillan went into Saturday's game planning to keep Niang on the bench and give the backup "four" minutes to Lavoy Allen and Jeremy Evans. But he wanted more movement in the offense in the fourth quarter, and found himself calling for Niang to play the entire period.

"He went out there and...the guy just knows how to play," McMillan said. "He knows how to play the game. A lot of what he's doing is just making reads, which is how we want to play. He came in and did a really nice job of kind of initiating the offense with quick ball movement, good decisions with the ball and knocking down his shot. The offense looks good when he's out there."

It could be a season-long dilemma for McMillan. It's difficult to play rookies ahead of veterans. But it's also difficult to keep a rookie such as Niang on the bench.


George, who sat out Saturday's game in Chicago to be rested, missed Monday's practice. McMillan said he woke up with a sore throat and cold and visited the doctor. McMillan hopes George will play in Evansville on Wednesday, when the Pacers play Milwaukee ... Miles, who has missed the previous two exhibitions with a sore knee, was a part-time participant on Monday and expects to play on Wednesday ... Myles Turner, who made his preseason debut on Saturday, was a fulltime participant in Monday's practice. He will play again on Wednesday, but have his minutes restricted as he works his way back into shape ... McMillan said he wants to use the remaining exhibition games to prepare for the regular season, with most of the starters playing normal regular season minutes – about 30.

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