Georges Niang and Naz Mitrou-Long played college ball at Iowa State. They were best friends and roommates in Ames, and became roommates again in Utah after both landed spots with the G League’s Salt Lake City Stars.
Which perhaps makes it weird in a way, though no less true, that Niang is now Mitrou-Long’s basketball idol to some degree.
Georges Niang — basketball idol? Really? Well, it turns out, there’s a simple reason for that.
“He’s a living testament to the exact same journey that I’m on,” Mitrou-Long said.
For Mitrou-Long and fellow Salt Lake City Stars/Utah Jazz “two-way” player Tyler Cavanaugh, Niang’s story is the dangling carrot, the proof that playing home games in front of 2,200 people a night at Salt Lake Community College’s Lifetime Activities Center gym, that folding their 6-foot-4 and 6-9 frames, respectively, into the middle seats in coach on a commercial flight for road games, all while making a decidedly non-glamorous five-figure salary can, indeed, be worth it.
After all, Niang showed that you can be the furthest thing from a lottery pick and still make it to (and carve out a role in) the NBA.
In the summer of 2017, Niang was coming off a 23-game appearance with the Indiana Pacers (he averaged 0.9 points and 0.7 rebounds in 4 minutes), and signed a non-guaranteed training camp deal with the Golden State Warriors. The work he did there piqued the Jazz’s interest, and they persuaded him to accept their offer of a two-way contract — a deal that would primarily entail playing in the G League, but which would also involve sporadic call-ups, the ability to learn from the Jazz coaching staff and train alongside Jazz players, plus the occasional NBA game appearance.
A year later, after a standout performance in Summer League play, Niang had impressed enough that the Jazz signed him to a full-fledged NBA contract. He made just over $1.5 million this season, in which he appeared in 59 games, shot 41% from deep, and earned a spot in the playoff rotation against the Rockets. His deal includes team options for about $1.6 million in 2019-20 and $1.8M in 2020-21.
“Against all odds, man, he just bet on himself. Period,” said Mitrou-Long. “He had some great offers overseas, people pulling him here and there, saying he should have done this or that. And ultimately, if you believe in yourself, and you’re honest and real with yourself, then you can make it happen. He gave himself realistic goals, and followed up with the work. That’s just all it was.”
They’re both 25 years old. They made about $77,000 this past season. They’re unrestricted free agents at the moment. And they’re obsessed with doing what Niang has done.
“Georges was very successful last year and converted his deal into a regular deal — and you saw his progress throughout the year,” said Cavanaugh, who appeared in 39 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 2017-18 before coming to the Jazz/Stars. “You never know what’s going to happen. All I can do is keep working, stay around, stay in the gym, see what happens.”
They’ve certainly been putting the time in, tooling around far-flung G League locales from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Portland, Maine, and in between taking on teams like the Grand Rapids Drive, Capital City Go-Go, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Erie BayHawks, Delaware Blue Coats, and Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
“The G League is a grind — I will say that,” Cavanaugh said.
Along the way, Mitrou-Long appeared in 32 G League games, averaging 18.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.7 rebounds. Cavanaugh played in 41 games, averaging 17.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, while shooting 40.4% from deep.
Their numbers were more modest with the Jazz (Mitrou-Long: 14 games, 1.1 points, 1.1 assists, 30.0 FG%, 18.2 3P%; Cavanaugh: 11 games, 0.8 points, 0.5 rebounds, 30.0 FG%, 20.0 3P%), but they say their growth was helped simply by being around the team.
Cavanaugh recalled a time he and Mitrou-Long showed up to the Zions Bank Basketball Campus practice facility for breakfast, thinking they’d make an impression by being the first players to arrive — only to find Donovan Mitchell already lifting weights. He cited Ricky Rubio’s even-keeled demeanor, Ekpe Udoh’s constant professionalism, Jae Crowder’s competitive fire as elements that made an impact upon him.
Mitrou-Long, meanwhile, said just sharing the court with the Jazz inevitably yielded “a new golden nugget I could take from somebody,” from Rubio advising him that his penchant for no-pass, pull-up 3-pointers was “crazy;” to trying to sneak a layup over Rudy Gobert, only to have the Frenchman “send it to the kitchen;” to registering nine points and nine assists in 33:43 of action against the Clippers in the regular-season finale; to trying to prepare his teammates for the playoffs by replicating the Rockets on the scout team.
“Things like that are things that have really propelled my mind to really believe that I can do this,” he said. “To be successful in my role, and to be around guys who have been successful in the NBA for a really long time is a thing I can’t put no price on.”
In the meantime, Niang will remain the biggest influence of all. Asked how his fellow Cyclone earned himself a spot in the league, Mitrou-Long said it was pretty straightforward.
“It’s not by accident, there’s no secret to it — it’s just continuous hard work, continuously being a student of the game,” he said. “That’s all it is.”