Georges Niang has gone from G League star to key piece of Jazz rotation

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah forward Georges Niang (31) scores for the Jazz, as Toronto Raptors forward Freddie Gillespie (55) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors at Vivint Arena, on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

Georges Niang is one of the best examples of the Jazz’s player development system in action.

He was drafted No. 50 in 2016 by the Indiana Pacers, who moved on from Niang just one year after he was selected. A month later, the Warriors picked him up, then waived him in training camp — which allowed them to control his G League rights. With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang excelled, scoring 18 points per game, adding seven rebounds and five assists. The promise he showed there intrigued the Jazz. Sensing an opportunity, they added him on a two-way deal, waiving Iowa State teammate Naz Mitrou-Long to get it done.

Niang absolutely turned around the Salt Lake City Stars. When Niang wasn’t with the Stars, they were an awful team: 5-30 in the 2017-18 season. When he did play, they were 11-4.

The performance gave the Jazz reason to give him a three-year contract, but only the first year of it was fully guaranteed. Over the course of that deal, he’s gone from 15th man to finding himself as a key piece of the Jazz’s rotation — even starting over the past week in the absence of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.

How? Well, Niang’s improved his game on both ends of the floor. The first key for him was turning from a competent 3-point shooter to a knockdown one. Niang, from the shorter 3-point line in college, shot 37% over his college career, but took only 30% of his shots from deep. Most of the time, he did his damage inside. Now, though, Niang has shot over 40% from deep every season since signing his Jazz deal — he now takes 73% of his shots from there.

That 3-point shot is his No. 1 weapon as a player, both in his accuracy and quantity of attempts. Niang has a quick trigger with his shot — shooting more per minute than fellow shooters Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, or Joe Ingles. The key lies in Niang’s reading of his defender before he receives the ball.

“Whether it’s driving the ball or being ready to shoot, just realizing how the defense is going to be playing me before the ball actually comes to me has been huge for me this year,” Niang said. “It’s helped me play better. I want to say it’s helped our team win.”

Niang was known for his well-rounded offensive game even before arriving in Utah — he’s better at dribbling the ball and finding teammates than the average power forward. But in order to be able to add his shooting and other offensive skills to the mix, he has to be able to keep up defensively and on the glass — and it’s here where the major questions of Niang’s skills have largely originated.

The questions make sense: Niang doesn’t have the muscle definition of the bulking power forward — he’s no Karl Malone. But he’s also not the light, bouncy, lanky wing that has taken over the “four” position in recent years. He, like teammate Joe Ingles, doesn’t have the traditional athleticism of the average NBA player.

But Niang has wildly improved on his weaknesses over the course of his Jazz contract. Once, frankly, embarrassed by quicker opponents, Niang has been doing a much better job of moving his feet and defending, no matter who he’s matched up against. He credits the Jazz’s training staff for making him quicker as a player.

“I think our guys in the weight room do a great job of working on our lateral quickness ... so that when you are out on the court, moving around out there is a lot easier,” Niang said. “I started a new regimen with them and it’s paid off.”

He’s no longer a liability on that end, and opponents who pick on him in isolation often find themselves disappointed. Niang’s reason for improving on defense has been made clear.

“Guys that play defense find their way onto the floor, and guys that don’t defend find their way off the floor,“ Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “George just made that a priority. ... His habits have improved and there’s a focus and a resolve.”

Niang’s 3-year bargain of a deal expires this offseason; he stands as the Jazz’s second most important free agent behind Mike Conley. The Jazz will have Niang’s Bird Rights, so they could conceivably retain him no matter the cost, but Utah’s luxury tax situation may make that difficult.

Coming to terms with Conley will undoubtedly be the priority, and while he’ll likely make less than this season, Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s extensions kick in next season too, pushing the Jazz into luxury tax territory for the second straight season. In other words, even a $5 million per year deal with Niang might cost Jazz owner Ryan Smith $15 million to $20 million overall.

Still, that Niang at this point — capable NBA starter, desired in NBA free agency — shows just how much he’s improved as a player since just a few short years ago. Niang, once an afterthought, has moved his way up the pecking order.

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