Georges Niang’s first love wasn’t a middle school crush or a famous actress, but the game of basketball. At a young age, the sound of a basketball whooshing through a stitched net or clanging off of a double-rim was tantalizing enough for Niang to invest his future, time and energy into a 94-by-50-foot set of square hardwood.
“At a young age, I always saw my dad playing on our neighbor’s hoop, and I fell in love with the little things about basketball, whether it was the way the ball came off of the rim or the sound of it going through the net,” Niang said. “I really started to realize I could be good at basketball and take it somewhere when I was probably in the eighth or ninth grade.”
Hoop dreams followed Niang through high school, where he played at The Tilton School in Tilton, New Hampshire. Despite coming off of the bench his freshman year, Niang pushed himself to the limit every day at practice to become the best version of himself that he could be. This relentless effort resulted in Niang starting the final three years of his high school career, eventually becoming The Tilton School’s all-time leading scorer. While Niang came into high school as a relatively unheralded prospect, he entered his final season with the program as one of the most sought-after recruits on the East Coast.
“To be honest I was kind of a late-bloomer; I didn’t reach the ESPN 100 until my senior year, so it was kind of like I was the underdog,” Niang said. “I always had a chip on my shoulder, forcing me to compete at the highest level and show that I can play Division I basketball.”
After a senior season in which he averaged 25.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game en route to a New England Preparatory School Athletic Council championship, Niang had a tough decision to make about where he’d continue his career. After many tireless nights of deliberation, Niang, who was ranked No. 56 in the Class of 2012, committed to Iowa State over schools like Iowa, Providence and Texas A&M. This wasn’t just a four-year decision to Niang, but a lifetime commitment to the cardinal and gold.
“My time at Iowa State was life-changing,” Niang said. “To be able to go to a place where I was embraced and welcomed with open arms by so many great people, a place that has so many dedicated fans, I just think it was a blessing for me. To be able to play under a guy that has coached or been around basketball like Fred Hoiberg, I just think it was an amazing experience for me and I think it’s helped my future for basketball and my development mentally with the game.”
While Niang earned numerous accolades at Iowa State, including AP Second Team All-American honors his senior year and All-Big 12 First Team honors his junior and senior seasons, his contribution to the folklore known as “Hilton Magic” may have been his most storied accomplishment in Ames. While at Iowa State, the Cyclones went 16-3 against ranked opponents at their home arena, known as Hilton Coliseum, nearly registering a blip on the Richter scale after every home upset. After four seasons with the Cyclones, Niang left ISU with the third-most field goals in Big 12 history, the fourth-most points and the ninth-most rebounds.
— Iowa State Athletics (@CycloneATH) February 17, 2016
The first player in Iowa State history to reach four straight NCAA tournaments and to be named to two All-American teams, Niang was selected with the 50th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. He played in 23 games with the Pacers during his rookie season, averaging just four minutes per game.
On December 6, 2016, just 42 days after the start of the 2016-17 season, Niang received word that he’d been sent on assignment to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Pacers’ NBA G League affiliate. While the decision was unexpected, Niang packed his bags and went to Fort Wayne with a positive attitude and a chip on his shoulder.
“It’s humbling, but I think I was really excited to just get down there and play,” Niang said. “Obviously nobody wants to feel like it’s a demotion, but that’s not it. I think the biggest thing is you have to go down there and try and improve on yourself, while continuing to help your team win. You have to constantly try to work on your game, but at the same time try to help your team win and be a team player.”
— Fort Wayne Mad Ants (@TheMadAnts) April 2, 2017
Niang played in six games with the Mad Ants his rookie year, posting 19.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. While he only saw 198 minutes of NBA G League action during the 2016-17 season, Niang realized how valuable the experience he was attaining could be to his future development.
“The G League is really good basketball,” Niang said. “It’s definitely a place where you can get out and play through your mistakes, really learn the game and see it at a pace were you can learn it, because the NBA is so quick and things are happening so fast.”
Niang started the 2017-18 season as an affiliate player with the Golden State Warriors, playing his NBA G League games with the Santa Cruz Warriors. The Iowa State standout took a massive leap his sophomore year, improving his field goal percentage by 9.9 percent and his three-point percentage by 11.5 percent in 26 contests with the “Sea Dubs.”
“I think the turning point for me was my time in the G League last year,” Niang said. “It was definitely what I needed. I think it gave me confidence and got me back into a routine of a daily preparation of trying to be the best me that I can be day-in and day-out. I think that’s what the G League is for. You have guys down there who are constantly trying to help you improve. You play a bunch of games and travel across the country as if you were an NBA team and really get to partake in NBA settings, whether that’s learning NBA plays or NBA defenses. It’s similar to what the NBA is, just on a smaller stage.”
On January 14, 2018, the Utah Jazz signed Niang to a two-way contract after an impressive stretch with Santa Cruz. Niang played 15 games with the Salt Lake City Stars, the Utah Jazz’s NBA G League affiliate, to finish the 2017-18 season, notching 22 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on an impressive 52.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Niang’s hard work officially paid off after he was named to the 2018 All-NBA G League First Team along with Lorenzo Brown, Thomas Bryant, Quinn Cook and Jameel Warney. While the wear-and-tear of traveling back-and-forth on a two-way contract from the NBA to the NBA G League might take its toll on some players, Niang took it as an opportunity to grow and better himself on and off the court.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) April 16, 2018
“I just think I needed to get back to the basics for me and just break it down and realize that stuff isn’t going to come easy at this level,” Niang said. “I think the biggest thing I learned is to be continuously relentless. There’s going to be game 24 when you’re in the G League and you just traveled on a bus all night, back-to-back, but you’ve got to realize that someone may be watching you for the first time and that’s the only impression they’re going to have of you. You have to play your hardest, your smartest and really battle to compete every night because some guy may see you play one time and that may make or break your chance with that team.”
On July 13, 2018, Niang reached the culmination of his young basketball career. Niang signed an full-time NBA deal with the Jazz after the organization gave him a shot on a two-way contract the season before. Every ounce of energy, drip of sweat and weight lifted had paid off for Niang as he signed the first non-rookie contract of his basketball life.
“I think I was in Vegas and my agent had called me and let me know that I was going to be signed by the Jazz,” Niang said. “It was an ecstatic feeling, but I think the biggest thing for me was that I was happy to be back in the NBA, while realizing that the hard work has just begun and that I still have a lot to show.”
This won’t be the first, second or last time you’ll hear Georges Niang’s story. He put in the relentless effort to be one of the top players in college basketball and the NBA G League, and is on his way to becoming a Jazz fan favorite. Niang knows his journey to the Association is different, but that’s never stopped him from leaving it all on the court.
“I think it goes to show that if you work on yourself, be a good person and treat people the right way,” he said, “good things are going to happen to you.”