Just as the Utah Jazz were getting used to having Thabo Sefolosha back in the rotation again, they’ll be forced to play without him.
That’s because in April, while he was recovering from knee surgery, Sefolosha was suspended five games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program. A five-game suspension is the penalty in the league’s collective bargaining agreement for the third positive test for marijuana. But because Sefolosha was hurt, he couldn’t serve the suspension until he was physically able to play, and preseason games don’t count.
So Sefolosha will miss the team’s first five regular-season games, returning Sunday, Oct. 28 against the Dallas Mavericks. He was apologetic in the statement he released in April:
But with Sefolosha out, the Jazz will need to find a replacement for the minutes he’ll play. And it’s interesting to note which players coach Quin Snyder named: "Right now, Georges [Niang] has done a good job, along with Jae [Crowder] and [Derrick] Favors. So expect those to be the guys that play.”
In other words, Snyder sees Sefolosha as a four this year, after starting his career as a shooting guard. It’s reminiscent of former Jazzman Joe Johnson’s career progression down the positional spectrum.
The man Snyder named first, Niang, now looks like he’ll get at least a chance to play in the rotation during Sefolosha’s suspension. Niang, 25, has had a stellar preseason, averaging 8.4 points on 64 percent overall shooting (50 percent from 3-point range) in only 12.7 minutes per contest.
The 6-foot-8 Niang isn’t the Jazz’s quickest or most athletic player, but his high skill level allows him to be a solid fit in most lineups. Niang knows that he isn’t going to be the featured scorer when he does play but knows what he needs to do to fill his role.
“[It’s about] being able to stay down on stretch 4s, being able to guard,” Niang said. On offense, it’s “being able to stretch the floor with my shooting ability, and then when guys close out, be able to play make for others without turning the ball over.”
He’s also a trendsetter of sorts for the Jazz: the first two-way contract player to sign a full contract with the team for the following season. Because of that, the organization feels more comfortable in his ability to step in and play the Jazz’s offense than they might be a typical signing, who only has a couple of weeks of training camp under his belt. Niang, on the other hand, knows the offense well from the point of view of multiple positions.
Niang’s impact on the SLC Stars last season was “humongous," according to Stars head coach Martin Schiller. The Stars had an 11-4 record when Niang played with the team, and a 5-30 record without him.
“He’s a good mix between the honey bee and the worker bee,” Schiller said. "He’s got a lot of creativity and feel, but he also works a lot.”
Over the weekend, the Jazz waived four players, Stephaun Branch, Isaiah Cousins, Jairus Lyles and Isaac Haas. That allowed them to reach the NBA-mandated roster limit of 17: 15 NBA spots and two two-way players. All four players figure to be headed for the Salt Lake City Stars roster through the league’s “affiliate players” stipulation.