Georges Niang's NBA career likely will come down to which of his characteristics wins the standoff: his exceptional basketball IQ or his unexceptional athleticism.
This much is certain: Niang is smart enough to know how to give himself the best chance of becoming that rare late second-round draft pick who has a lasting career.
"I'm here to make plays for others," Niang said Tuesday while meeting with Indianapolis media members.
The Pacers made Niang the 50th player chosen in last week's NBA draft. That automatically stacks the odds against him, given the history of second-round NBA picks, particularly those selected later in the round. Niang, however, believes he landed in the perfect place to defy convention. The Pacers likely will have an opening for a forward on their roster, and are seeking playmaking court-spreaders with high basketball IQ's.
Niang has plenty of that, to hear him and others tell it. He brought up his "basketball IQ" five times in his 13-minute conversation with reporters. His college career supports the argument as well. He averaged 20.5 points and 6.2 rebounds at Iowa State, becoming the school's first two-time All-American, earning second- and third-team honors as a junior and senior and second all-time leading scorer.
He didn't do it with raw athleticism. "Crafty" is the word most often used to describe his style of play. He uses both hands effectively, shoots well from the perimeter, handles and passes the ball well and has a knack for creating shots. Those qualities earned him nine pre-draft workouts for NBA teams, but left him out of most mock drafts. It would have surprised nobody, him included, if he hadn't been drafted. But it won't surprise hardly anyone, him especially, if he has a long NBA career.
"He's an extremely intelligent player, he thinks the game at a level above most guys, and he has to because of that lack of athleticism," said Travis Hines, who covered Niang for the Ames Tribune. "He has kind of an uncanny mix of intelligence and feel to figure angles and space and get shots off.
"Even in the NCAA tournament (when Niang scored 28, 28 and 30 points) he was shooting shots I'd never seen him shoot before. He just has a feel for how to play to get off a shot."
Still, plenty of smart and skilled players have failed to make the NBA because of their lack of athleticism. He'll have to be able to beat people off the dribble or get off a jump shot occasionally, as well as defend reasonably well, to survive in the league. He's dropped 30 pounds since his sophomore season by improving his diet, but still isn't regarded as quick by anyone's estimation.
He says he's not concerned, and is willing to take on all doubters.
"People who are saying those things are allowed to have their thoughts," he said. "If they want to lace up and play one-on-one they can come here and play. The biggest thing for me is my basketball IQ allows me to read the scouting report and know the schemes and be in he right spots, rather than just depend on my athleticism.
"The biggest thing is my basketball IQ, and my competitiveness and my willingness to win is going to help me stay humble and stay great at this level."
If that sounds like arrogance, he'll explain.
"I'm not saying that I'm arrogant, but I have a certain kind of confidence in my abilities," he said. "I know who I am and I'm not going to skew away from that."
Niang certainly wasn't perceived negatively around Ames, where his popularity among fans was surpassed only by his former coach, Fred Hoiberg, the former Pacers guard who now coaches the Chicago Bulls.
"The amount of adulation for him is pretty astounding," Hines said.
"He's very outgoing, a very funny guy, and he was outwardly vocal about loving Iowa State. For a kid from Massachusetts who wasn't a top 100 recruit, that meant a lot to Iowa State fans. It reinforced what they believe about their university. He became a second son despite growing up on the east coast."
Niang already shows a knack for ingratiating himself with Pacers fans as well, saying things such as "I was hoping I would get drafted but I didn't know it was going to be a great place like Indianapolis."
He didn't have to take a cram course in Pacers history, either. He was well aware that his college number, 31, will no longer be available because it's been retired in honor of Reggie Miller. He'll go with 32 instead. And while he grew up a Celtics fan in Massachusetts, he recalls the Pacers' pinstriped jerseys of the late Nineties. He also name-dropped backup center Scot Pollard, who hasn't played for them in 10 years.
Discussing how he'll fit with the current team, he used nicknames and first names, as if he's already one of the guys. He said, for example, he'll "make things easier on PG's life" and "get Monta open for shots."
Those kind of contributions will be fine with the Pacers.
"I know who I am," he said. "I'm not going to go out here and shoot two-dribble, step-back jumpers. I'm here to play-make for others and get others involved."
Six things to know about Niang
- He compares himself to versatile NBA forwards such as Boris Diaw, Paul Millsap and Draymond Green, all successful players who were not high draft picks. Diaw was taken 21st, Green 35th and Millsap 47th
- He was a prep school and AAU teammate of Nerlens Noel, who was drafted No. 6 overall out of the University of Kentucky in 2013
- He was lightly recruited as a junior at Tilton Prep School until Hoiberg offered him a scholarship after seeing him dominate Noel in practice. The following summer, he blew up and was drawing interest from major college coaches, but he stuck with his verbal commitment
- He's listed at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds – about 30 pounds less than his sophomore season at Iowa State. He was motivated to lose weight after breaking his right foot in a second-round NCAA tournament game, and accomplished it by improving his diet
- As a chubby kid growing up 45 miles north of Boston, he played hockey before switching to basketball. Even at a young age, he got by in basketball with a throwback game emphasizing fundamentals and craftiness rather than athleticism
- His first name is pronounced with a silent S. The family heritage is French, so technically it would be pronounced with a soft G, but he goes, simply, with "George." The last name is pronounced Nee-YANG
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