Georges Niang is one of the NBA’s best rags-to-riches success stories of the past few seasons, a guy who, in a year, went from a fringe prospect to legitimate rotation guy.
So, what exactly occurred in that year? What made his leap happen?
Well, first of all, Niang put in a ton of work. More specifically, though, he put in work with Martin Schiller.
Schiller is the head coach of the Jazz’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars. That title, however, does not really do justice to explaining what his job is. Far more important than accumulating wins against the likes of the Maine Red Claws or Rio Grande Valley Vipers is the progress that Stars players make toward becoming functional NBA players.
In short, Schiller is the man the Jazz turn to in order to find out if someone has a certain something.
“The developmental thing is to be mentioned first — that’s the first part of the job, getting the guys better,” he said. “… Getting Georges Niang onto the first team is the thing that I get judged on.”
When last year’s first-round pick, Grayson Allen, was assigned to the Stars this past season, it wasn’t a punishment. It was an opportunity for him to get more intensive defensive instruction, and then opportunities to try out what he had learned in game situations, without the potential collateral damage of costing the Jazz needed wins.
Big man Tony Bradley has spent the better part of the past two years working with Schiller and the Stars, attempting to harness raw ability and potential by developing consistent habits. He will be the Jazz’s third-string center this season.
Meanwhile, the team’s trio of recent second-round picks — Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, and Justin Wright-Foreman — are all likely to spend significant time with Schiller, as well.
“The biggest thing is identifying what they need, and then the nice thing is, I can get them — in the game — what they need,” Schiller said. “… I’ve got the chance with my program to put guys into situations in the game, where they can actually really blossom.”
Schiller, who is entering his third season as Stars coach, has actually been honing players’ skills for years.
The Vienna, Austria, native spent a formative decade working in youth basketball programs in his home country and neighboring Germany. On that level (roughly equivalent to high school ball in the United States), he believes European programs have an advantage.
“I think Americans kind of live a lot off their athleticism. I think the AAU system, in a way, hinders guys from developing well technically and tactically,” Schiller said. “It’s a lot about athleticism, and it’s a lot about, ‘If I don’t like it here, and I get criticized and actually coached up, then I’ll switch teams.’ We’re more old-school in Europe.”
Where Americans have the edge, he added, is in individual development of professional-level players. Once you get to a pro team in Europe, he said, “it’s only team basketball and only team practice, and not a lot of individual work.”
Both the Jazz and Schiller saw the upside of turning his considerable developmental talents upon pro-level players in need of some refinement to their games. That led to him going from an assistant coach with German Bundesliga club Riesen Ludwigsburg to heading up the Stars.
The process begins with Schiller talking shop with Jazz coach Quin Snyder and his staff and hashing out specific goals for players — then staying in constant contact so that “the guys are monitored very tightly.”
With Niang, a plan was hatched to hone his stretch-four abilities: “He was a great player before, but it kind of focused what he could do even more.” With Allen, “The only thing we focused on was defense. It was all defense, and nothing else. Anything on the offensive end didn’t matter.” As for Bradley, “We created situations where he could get a lot of touches, a lot of touches in situations that he’s good at, which is screen-and-roll first, a little bit of post-up second; post-ups on the left block where he’s really good because he can go to the middle with his right hand.
“That’s kind of the nice thing about the G League” Schiller added, “that we can cater to those guys.”
And that’s the plan with Oni, Brantley, and Wright-Foreman. Though the former signed a full-fledged Jazz contract while the others got two-way deals, Schiller still said, “I anticipate having all three quite a lot.” They all bring unique skill sets and challenges.
Oni will be crafted into a 3-and-D wing, with some extra attention devoted to testing his ability to set up teammates as a passer — a facet of his game the organization was pleasantly surprised by during Summer League play. Brantley is a four with “a really interesting package” — some shooting range, post-up ability, and playmaking vision — but also someone whose natural instinct too often “turns into bad decision-making.” Wright-Foreman, meanwhile, is a two-guard in a point guard’s body (Schiller compared him to Warriors-turned-Lakers guard Quinn Cook) that is a “highly gifted scorer” who hurts his own ability to get clean looks by not knowing where to pass the ball.
There’s no guarantee of success, of course. Neither of last season’s two-way players, Naz Mitrou-Long and Tyler Cavanaugh, are with the organization anymore. Still, Schiller is eager to see what the new guys — and what he — can do with the Stars this coming season. Despite just returning from a stint as an assistant coach with the German national team at the FIBA World Cup in China, he’s eager to get back to work, and for the season to start. The Stars finished last season with a 27-23 record (an 11-game improvement from the season before), and while he knows that the team’s win-loss record is hardly the most important indicator of the job he’s doing, his competitive nature can’t simply accept not caring about outcomes.
“You want to be good, you want to compete, you want to win games. That’s the nature of sports,” Schiller said. “Our thing is, we believe if we develop the guys well, then we should be able to win some games, too. I think that worked well last season. So we’ll see what we can do this season.”