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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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NBA Daily: Turner’s Elite Defense Crucial To Pacers Playoff Push

The Pacers are 6-1 in February, and Myles Turner’s outstanding work on the defensive end is a huge reason why, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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When a star player sustains a serious injury, it’s a gut-wrenching blow to any type of momentum his team has established.

Let’s rewind to about a month ago. The Indiana Pacers were rolling right along on January 23 with a 31-15 record. Among the top teams in the NBA, they were engaged in an entertaining battle with the Toronto Raptors that night. The Pacers ended up winning the game, but it cost them an unexpected, steep price.

Hustling down the floor to get back in transition, Oladipo’s leg gave out at the 4:07 mark of the second quarter. Just like that, the All-Star guard had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee. His year was finished.

While earning an emotional victory over the best squad in the Eastern Conference at home was a commendable response to such devastation, it was one game. Many predicted Indiana would have a significant drop due to the loss of Oladipo. After all, this was their leader on the court and in the locker room. They did drop four consecutive games afterward, too.

What people were quick to forget, though, is the resilience Nate McMillan had instilled in this group—and it continues to show. Sure, they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first-half season finale before the All-Star break, but they were on a six-game spree going into it.

In February, the Pacers are 6-1 with an average margin of victory of 12.8 points. As evidenced by 27.4 assists per game, the ball is moving as it should be and they’re getting results because of it (congratulations on Player of the Week honors, Bojan Bogdanovic).

Remember: Good offense comes from great defense, which is exactly why it’s been such a productive stretch. This month, Indiana is holding opponents to a lowly 28.2 three-point percentage and boasting the No. 1 defensive rating in the league at 98.1 opponent points per 100 possessions.

Although the physicality and technique of his teammates are a big help, Myles Turner is the true anchor of this stout Pacers’ defense. Is it fair to say that the blossoming fourth-year center isn’t getting nearly enough love from the masses as he should be?

This man is an absolute force underneath. The easiest way to put it is by using his league-high 2.7 blocks per game average as proof. In addition, Turner has recorded 81.6 percent of Indiana’s rejections since the beginning of the month. He had 10 swats against both Los Angeles teams at home.

Don’t get it twisted—the impact goes beyond blocks. Turner is simply dominating whoever tries him on the floor.

Per Cleaning The Glass, the Pacers’ defensive rating is 103.8 with him playing, a figure that ranks in the 93rd percentile among every talent in the NBA.

Up against guys who have averaged at least 20 minutes in a minimum of 25 games, Turner places fourth in the league overall in DRTG. Coincidentally, teammate Cory Joseph is right there with him.

Consider the elite competition he has faced. Looking at NBA.com’s matchups page, Turner has done fine work of holding highly-regarded big men in check. In two games, for example, the 22-year-old has stymied Rudy Gobert for just 10 points in 72 head-to-head possessions.

Citing more familiar assignments in the East, All-Star Nikola Vucevic has been a net 4.8 points per 100 possessions worse when facing off against Turner. Joel Embiid is a net minus-1.2 using the same scale. It’s also of note that Brook Lopez, a more spaced out center, has also had his struggles with Indiana’s fast-rising man in the middle, shooting just 33.3 percent from the field.

If you want to really tie a bow around these figures, see how consistent the numbers are. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus system has Turner ranked third, just behind Gobert and Hassan Whiteside as the top defenders in that category regarding starters. Basketball Reference’s version of this statistic also has him in the top three, trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Gobert in Defensive Box Plus-Minus.

Throw in the fact that Turner is knocking down a career-best 40.7 percent of his triples on the offensive end and the Pacers have really benefited from the Texas product’s development as one of the most promising two-way centers in the NBA.

It’d be remiss of us to forget mentioning Thaddeus Young, who has been a headache for almost every player he bodies up on a nightly basis with his in-your-grill style on defense. He forces the opposition to make costly decisions often, which in turn helps Turner and Indiana create momentum with either stops or steals.

In all honesty, you could pick a name on the Pacers and that person will have contributed in some way, shape or form. That’s just the way McMillan has run things since taking over the club in 2016.

Indiana isn’t only in this thing to get into the playoffs. At 38-20 seeded third in the East, they’re set on making plenty of noise to avenge the loss of their superstar and doing something special.

And Turner just may be the man to ensure the Pacers get their wish.

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NBA Daily: The Impact of the Buyout Guys

With buyout season in full effect, Matt John takes a look at who among newly signed players will make the biggest impact for their new team.

Matt John

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If there’s a holiday to compare this year’s trading season, it’s Thanksgiving. We had a lot of juicy trades leading up to the deadline, so many in fact that it may have been a little too much to digest. To make a long story short, we got our money’s worth on Feb. 7. (especially if you are betting on basketball)

If Thanksgiving is the only apt comparison for the trade deadline, then buyout season so far has been like Black Friday. We’re seeing quite a few productive players get picked off the market for discount prices. That happens every year, but not at this volume, and not with players as good as this year’s class was.

Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph is kind of a loaded class for buyout season. Those guys are slated to be paid almost $100 million combined, and they either have been or will be added for the veteran’s minimum.

Now usually when players get bought out, where they go is usually get dictated by what their motive is. There are only three motives for why a player signs with a team after getting bought out.

A. His next payday
B. Getting a ring
C. Both

The players who opt for option A usually do because they believe they’ll get the most touches, which in turn will make them look better for interested parties this summer. The players who opt for option B are usually at the end of their days in the NBA so they want one last shot at success before they call it a career. Option C pretty much explains itself.

So far, the majority of the players who have latched on to new teams after being bought out have opted for option A. Some have already played a few games with their new team, while others are eagerly awaiting to start a new chapter with their new squad – even if it’s likely to be pretty brief.

As we wait for the NBA season to resume days from now, it’s time to look over what we should expect from the guys who have joined their new teams via buyout season. None of the players mentioned are stars, but they could play a part in their team’s playoff success this season.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers

This couldn’t have worked out any better than it has for Matthews.

He got traded by the team that he had no future with, and now he gets to play for a team that had a void that he fills at shooting guard and has a chance to make things interesting in the postseason.

Matthews’ role on the team is pretty clear. He’s a 3-and-D swingman who should fit snugly into the Pacers’ roster of high-end role players who know exactly what their role is. Now, Matthews doesn’t boast efficiency – he’s currently shooting 40 percent from the field this season – but his 37.1 percent  shooting rate from distance this season should be perfect for Indy since they shoot the exact same percentage as a team – good for sixth overall in the league.

Since Wes shoots almost six threes a game on average, and Indiana currently ranks 28th in three-point attempts per game (25.4), his presence could also boost the Pacers’ offense, which currently is rated 17th-highest in the league (109.9).

Matthews hasn’t exactly had a brilliant start in his first two games – eight points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists on 23.5 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from three. In his defense, he’s been on three teams in the past couple of weeks. Going through that much change of scenery is bound to lead some to jetlag.

When he gets past said jetlag, Indiana going to be an even tougher out for whoever faces them in the playoffs and eases the presumed death blow that was Victor Oladipo’s knee injury.

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers

Remember when the Blazers gave Kanter that four-year/$70 million offer sheet back in the summer of 2015? Looks like this was a pairing that was truly meant to be.

And why shouldn’t it? According to NBA.com, Portland’s bench averages 35.4 points a game, which ranks 19th in the league. Kanter eats second units for breakfast thanks to both his elite low-post scoring and rebounding. Averaging just 25.6 minutes per game this season, Enes is recording 14 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.

Now, some regression is due in Rip City since the Blazers have understandably better offensive options than the Knicks did this season. Still, Kanter is more likely than not going to help what is already the fifth-highest rated offense in the league. He’s also probably going to make Portland’s rebounding, which already ranks third in total rebounds on average (47.6), better. Especially since their bench ranks ninth in rebounding average (17.9).

So, to sum it up, Enes will probably make Portland’s strengths all the stronger on offense. The question is, will he hurt them on defense?

Anyone who’s anyone knows Kanter’s shortcomings on D. The man definitely tries but he’s a liability on that end of the floor which makes him perfect against second units. Portland currently has the 16th-highest rated offense in the league (110.2), so he’s probably not going to make that better.

This season, the Knicks’ defense was plus-3.9 with Kanter on the floor. That’s not good. It’s not dreadfully bad either. It’s not bad enough that Kanter would be an overall liability. It may help Enes to not have to play in the 26th-highest rated defense in the league like he did in the Big Apple.

It’s not picture perfect, but Enes Kanter brings another dimension to Portland. Even if it’s not a dimension that’s as desired around the league as it once was.

Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder

The one resource that OKC needed in this stretch run was a knockdown shooter. In ‘Kieff, they got a shooter that fits the label of “eh.”

Morris’ 33.3 percent shooting from deep this season – and 33.8 percent for his career – isn’t going to intimidate anyone. It feels as though that’s not why the Thunder brought him aboard. They brought him aboard for one reason above all else: Be better than Patrick Patterson.

Patterson has been a colossal disappointment in Oklahoma City. Originally brought on to be the designated stretch big, Patterson’s percentages have gone down the drain, shooting 37.8 from the field and 33.8 percent from three. To make matters worse, the Thunder are minus-14.7 with him on the floor.

If Morris proves to be just a reasonable upgrade over Patterson, then that can make a world of difference for Oklahoma City’s second unit, who currently ranks 26th in points per game with 31.2 points a game. Markieff doesn’t have to be a knockdown shooter in order to do that. He just has to continue to be the guy he’s been since 2013.

Markieff can also spell minutes for both Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel at center. This season, he’s played 64 percent of his minutes at the five according to Basketball-Reference. That percentage is definitely going to take a dive with the Thunder, but it gives them another option. A team that already thrived on its versatility found yet another facet to make it stronger.

Morris also adds a little sizzle to the Thunder. His brash attitude on the court could make what’s already been the league’s stingiest defense all the more unforgiving. For a team that needed as much help as it can get as entering the toughest part of the schedule, getting Morris should prove to be a no-brainer.

Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors

This will be the first playoff-caliber team than Jeremy Lin has been on since his time in Charlotte in 2016, and it is the best team Lin’s been on since his days with Houston Rockets. If all goes well, things could get Lin-sane in Toronto.

All puns aside, adding Lin was a must for the Raptors after trading Delon Wright in the Marc Gasol deal and losing Fred VanVleet for the next month or so. Even with VanVleet, the Raptors needed a playmaker in that second unit. Granted, Gasol probably helps a lot with that. Lin just adds to it.

This season, Toronto’s bench is currently ranked 20th in scoring with 35.2 points a game and is ranked 26th in assists with seven per game. Adding a veteran like Lin won’t magically change all of that, but he’s an improvement over what they had.

Jeremy has also proven to be an overall plus this season. Keep in mind, he played half the season in Atlanta, but the Hawks were a plus-4.1 with Lin on the floor. It primarily came from his defense, where the Hawks were minus-6.3 with him on the floor. Toronto has the seventh-highest rated defense in the league, so he should help in that regard.

Running the second unit isn’t the biggest task, but it’s consequential enough that it needs a man who can be up for the job. Getting a virtuoso in that department like Jeremy Lin should Toronto’s hopes of getting past their playoff demons.

There are others as well, such as Shelvin Mack going to Charlotte and Wayne Ellington going to Detroit, but those moves likely won’t be as impactful.

Who’s to say we’re even finished yet? There are rumblings of a Robin Lopez buyout in Chicago. Ditto for Frank Kaminsky. Several of these buyout guys still remain unsigned. Who knows who else might be finding a new team in the next week or so? Oh, and there’s a certain Carmelo Anthony lurking in the distance.

That last line was only partially a joke.

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