Iowa State basketball: Georges Niang's basketball education, an oral history
Georges Niang has wowed fans, teammates, opponents and just about anyone who has taken the time to see him on a basketball court over the last four years during his Iowa State career.
He's a rarity in today's game not only for being a four-year difference maker, but because he is an elite-level scorer with an advanced skillset of shots, fakes and counters that look more at home in grainy footage of pivot men of the 1950s than in the high-flying world of the 21st century.
But Niang produced to a degree few Cyclones have. He sits third -- with second in his sights -- on ISU's all-time scoring list with 2,111 career points and is certain to become the school's first two-time All-American later this month.
How does a player develop from unathletic and overlooked to a pro prospect with a game that confounds some of the game's great defensive bodies and minds? Below, that story is told by the men who helped mold Niang into the man with a million moves.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Niang was born and raised in the Methuen, Mass., community about 45 miles north of Boston. It was there he first began to learn the game of basketball, but not before trying his hand at another sport.
Rick Gorman, coach, director and founder New England Storm grassroots program: He actually played hockey, which a lot of people don't know. Him on skates on a skating rink was comical. It was this big Baby Huey on ice skates.
By third grade, however, Niang was turning in his hockey equipment for basketball shoes.
Gorman: I'm actually the guy that had him when he was just learning how to dribble and run down the court. I actually coached him from third grade up through ninth grade. I had him at the real rudimentary levels of him learning how to play the game.
Georges was a big kid. If anything he was more of a chubby kid who was uncoordinated who had a little bit of a baby elephant to him, kind of flopping on the floor a lot. He was a project right from the beginning. The big thing is he had some good size. He was one of the taller kids in the grade.
I kept thinking of this scenario as a baby giraffe or a baby elephant and the legs kind of fall out, and we just said, 'OK how do we get him balanced and working?' So we drilled a lot on it.
Leo Papile, founder and coach BABC grassroots program: He's Mr. Fundamental. He just had that instinct. He was probably born with it, I imagine.
I've talked to a couple of guys who coached him in grade school, he was just a real fundamental, real instinctive athlete as opposed to a guy that's common today as a run and jumper. He's the anti-runner-and- jumper but he's the epitome of a basketball player.
Gorman: He was unlike other kids in terms of how hard he wanted to work on his game and basically prove people wrong.
I run a youth center, that's my real job, so Georges would spend every moment he could coming over to my gym and working on his game. He'd want me to work him out. Him and my son would play literally every day.
I saw footwork stuff with him that I thought was off the charts in like the sixth and seventh grade. Kids just didn't have that kind of footwork.
Even as he began to pick up the game, however, Niang's basketball prospects remained more in the future than the present.
Gorman: We had a seventh-grade team that won the Massachusetts state AAU tournament. Georges didn't start on that team, but I remember sitting in a hotel down in New Jersey with my assistant coach, who actually was an assistant coach at Rider University at one time, and we said, 'Who's the best kid on this team when you look at long term?' and we both said it's Georges. He's going to be the best of all these kids. He wasn't as athletic as some of the other forwards that played on that team. He wasn't as explosive but we could see then he was going to be the best and by far.
Niang may have been coming off the bench for his middle school teams, but the moves that would make him famous as a Cyclone were already part of his growing offensive repertoire.
Gorman: We worked more on his footwork and made him, quite frankly, a nightmare matchup. I laugh at all this stuff he's doing right now. That spin move that (ISU fans) have been accustomed to watching? He had that spin move in middle school. People say, 'Oh he couldn't have had that.' I'm telling you. Did we teach him how to do that? I don't know, but I'll tell you we definitely took advantage of it though.
The move to prep school
As Niang's middle school years came to an end, he was faced with the decision on where to attend high school. By that time, basketball had become an increasingly important part of his life.
Gorman: You would see some kids at the end of their middle-school career have other interests, Georges was driven that he was going to be the best.
Marcus O'Neil, Tilton School head coach: When Georges was in eighth grade, this guy Dennis Gaudet was talking to his uncle, 'Hey you should look at Tilton School, it's a good school, they play pretty good basketball,' and so he came and watched a few games.
I'm always looking for players. The mom seemed like a nice lady, and she emailed me his AAU schedule so I said, 'Yeah, I'll go watch this kid.'
The first time I saw him I thought he had pretty good hands, pretty good feet and he's a decent-sized kid. I thought maybe as a junior or senior this kid can give us some minutes as a big guy. He could end up being 6-5, 6-6.
Gorman: He left our hometown to go to Tilton, which is located about an hour and a half north of us and it's a prep school and at that point in time they had (McDonald's All-American) Alex Oriakhi and a few other (high-level) players.
Papile: That's arguably the best league in America, that NEPSAC. There's fifth-year guys who are allowed to repeat (grades) or post-grad guys. That's (really) good basketball. You've got 19-year-old guys. It's like college basketball. A lot of that at Tilton as opposed to if he would have stayed at Methuen (helped Niang).
O'Neil: Alex Oriakhi was really a mentor to (Niang) for his first two years here. Alex had a great personality, and he liked to give lectures. He always had a different saying every day. He always had a story to tell, and Georges just soaked it up because this guy (Oriakhi) was a star as much as you could be as a high-school player.
Alex Oriakhi, Tilton teammate: When (Niang) first got to Tilton, he was 6-3, 6-4, fat and he couldn't really do much. He had a nice little touch.
Gorman: For anyone to say they knew Georges was going to be high-major in the ninth grade, they're full of (it).
Oriakhi: This was a kid that was looked at as a Division II, Division III player coming in.
Niang's freshman year didn't do much to change the perception of the type of player he was or what his ceiling might be. After that year, though, things started to move forward for him on the basketball court much more quickly.
O'Neil: I really started to like the kid. I would say to my college-coaching buddies, 'What do you think of this kid?' They'd say he might be a good Division II player someday and, I'm not saying I said, 'This kid's special, he's going to score 2,000 points in a BCS school,' but I did like him. It was during that sophomore year when Niang first met Noah LaRoche, who would go on to be one of the most influential basketball voices in his life. LaRoche has trained professional players.
Noah LaRoche, Integrity Hoops: He was already really smart and really good. He was already way ahead of the game when I met him. I guess we were just polishing here and there.
Niang's skills were coming more into focus at this time, and the Tilton staff looked to develop them more and more.
O'Neil: We've had a pretty good track record in the frontcourt guys that can go inside-outside. We think that's important. That's kind of the future of the game. The face-up fours, the face-up fives. You can guard those guys inside but they can't guard you on the other end. Georges is the best example of that.
LaRoche: The biggest thing we worked on with him was probably getting more comfortable playing outside the 3-point line. Playing off the dribble and dribble-handoff situations, pick-and-pop situations, shooting the threes. Also, adding more to his repertoire in the post depending on who's guarding him. You might not be able to back a defender down so you have to face up and use your footwork a little more. So I think understanding when and how to use specific skills in different situations.
The move up
Deciding to test himself with Tilton and NEPSAC wasn't the only move Niang made to improve his game. After playing with Gorman's New England Storm for years, eventually it was decided that Niang needed to look to bigger things on the grassroots circuit.
Gorman: People say, well why didn't he stay with the Storm? My program is not a nationally-known program, it's more of a regionally-known program, but I had to tell Georges it's time for you to go to BABC. Leo had asked, and Georges was like part of me doesn't want to leave.
Papile: Some BABC players that went to Tilton mentioned to me there's a big guy up here that's very, very good. Very clever. They said he doesn't really look like a player, but you're going to like him. Our recommendations came from older teammates and alumni. He came to us that fall for our fall program in the fall of 2008. He got on the freshman team that fall.
Niang may have not looked like a player then, but he quickly performed like one.
Papile: The freshman coach called me, and said, 'This Georges guy, he had 44 points. Every time he touched the ball in the post he just scored. He's unbelievable. He just catches it, creates a little bit of space and he was like 20-for-20.'
Despite his dominance, Niang spent that season on BABC's 15U that performed extremely well while playing a national schedule. His rise continued the next season with BABC, which routinely churns out high-major players every year.
Papile: His sophomore season, it became to the point where I didn't start him, but he certainly finished. Once he went in, he never came out because his ability to pass and catch just stood apart. Georges was our go-to post-up guy in 2010 when they won the AAU 10th grade national championship.
By the end of Niang's junior season, he had already committed to join Fred Hoiberg's Iowa State team in the fall of 2012. He still, though, had one final grassroots season to go. BABC participated in the EYBL, the Nike-sponsored grassroots circuit. His team comprised of future well-known names such as Nerlens Noel (Kentucky), Jake Layman (Maryland), Jaylen Brantley (Maryland), Rene Castro (Butler/Duquesne) and Wayne Selden (Kansas).
Papile: That was the No. 1 team in the country, won the EYBL championship. Georges established himself as one of the premier low-post guys in the country. We were 29-1 and the team was a really dominant team.
The Noel effect
Not only were Noel and Niang a heck of a one-two punch for BABC, they were also Tilton teammates. Noel was considered one of the top players in the 2012 class on the strength largely of his defensive, specifically shot-blocking, prowess. He went on to be the sixth pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Noel's impact on developing Niang's unorthodox array of offensive moves is a longtime talking point on ISU telecasts.
O'Neil: I love hearing those too, (ESPN analyst Fran) Fraschilla likes to talk about that. I'd like to say, Nerlens is a tremendously-talented player, obviously. He's in the pros, an incredible shot blocker and all that, but how about the other way? Having to try to learn how to block a guy with a million moves? I would say by the end, those matchups were a lot more frustrating for Nerlens than they were for Georges.
Niang's development against Noel wasn't just by accident, either, as much of his instruction in Tilton was geared around beating longer, more athletic defenders.
O'Neil: I think we taught him a few tricks about getting the ball off quick before the big guy can get his arms in the air. I think I still see him do that (at ISU). We teach a lot of spin off the contact. The guy's leaning on you on the post, spin off and get it up in the air.
Papile: It's hard to get Noel off his feet. He's a very good shot blocker. His numbers in college and pros indicate that. Georges was one of the few guys that had enough patience to get him up off his feet with the second or third fake or he'd create space and duck under.
Natural ability, desire
Each and every one of Niang's coaches was quick to point out and adamant to repeat that the true driving force behind his development is his basketball IQ and his desire to improve.
Papile: Georges' gift is his intellect. He makes the game very simple for himself and his teammates, and everything he does he does for winning.
Gorman: Georges is a student of the game. I have a finished basement and that's where me, my son and him would sit down there and watch games after games. Georges wasn't just watching the games. He was figuring out how to do things differently.
LaRoche: He's already mastered the fundamentals so there's different layers you can teach him. He picks things up really fast so you can add different counters and play off multiple pivots, and he can do it pretty quickly so it's fun as a coach. It keeps you challenged and on edge.
Oriakhi: A lot of the stuff I told him, he'd remind me of later so I was like, this guy is really paying attention. If you can think the game, you're that much better. Niang can definitely think the game.
Papile: You've got to be born with that. I've been involved in pro basketball since the 1970s, and there's guys that are born with it. It's an instinct. I think they just figure it out when they're 8-, 9-years old in the schoolyard or in the YMCA.
How do I get a clear path to the basket? Most guys are trying to run faster or jump higher, Georges is like a guy with his abacus trying to figure out how to create space, steal every inch.
Gorman: He sees the game so far ahead of people.
For much of his career, Niang wasn't known just for his throwback game or incredible knack for scoring. Mostly, he was known as the overweight, unathletic player that still somehow put up numbers.
Gorman: When Georges was in the eighth grade, he was chubby. He was a fat kid. He had rolls. He took his shirt off, kids would make fun of him. He was like every kid. He liked cupcakes. Georges didn't want to miss a meal.
Papile: He certainly wasn't the specimen he is today, to say the least. That's putting it kindly.
Oriakhi: We would just make fun of him when he was a freshman because he was 6-4, 6-5, so we'd make fun of him. How you gonna be 6-4, 6-5 and you still can't dunk? We'd just poke fun of him.
The weight didn't keep Niang from being incredibly productive. He left Tilton as the school's all-time leading scorer and was a consensus top-100 recruit. As a freshman in the 2012-13 season, Niang moved into the starting lineup for good during the Big 12 season and averaged 12.1 points per game. His playing weight was listed at 260 pounds.
Papile: We played a high-powered schedule. I think that stuff gave him confidence to go into a Big 12 because he was playing against Big 12-type people for a couple years on the New England prep-school circuit and on the BABC circuit. He wasn't a stranger to those guys. I think that gave him confidence that his tricks would work and be successful.
O'Neil: You can't say the kid has no gifts as a player. That's just false. Just because he doesn't look like a Tommy Hilfiger model, he has enough talent to be a pretty good player.
His sophomore year was even better as Niang averaged 16.7 points per game. In ISU's opening game of the NCAA tournament, however, he broke his foot. The moment proved to be a turning point in his career as he decided he needed finally shed his excess weight.
LaRoche: It just got out of hand. It's not a secret. He's not one of these thinly built guys. He's always kind of had to keep in mind his body and his physique, he's got to pay special attention to it. When he got injured and when he sat, he had a couple of months where he didn't do anything and for a guy like that where he's not doing anything, you get to a point where you're just like holy smokes.
Papile: He's not stupid. Georges is a guy that knows what he needs to do to survive. I think once he surveyed the situation, got a sniff of it, he said for me to compete at this level, I have to max out my body. I can't be at 90 percent or 99 percent. I've got to be at 101 percent. I think he's done that with his body.
LaRoche: He'd had a couple of pretty good years at Iowa State, but it's like Georges, we've got to kind of find a new normal. It's going to start with your body. You want to have a chance to play in the Final Four and have all these accolades he's having now, it's not going to be advancing your skill level so much any more, it's really going to have to do with your body and taking care of that.
So in the summer of 2014, Niang began a regimen that revolved primarily around improving his diet.
LaRoche: He had no choice because he was living with me. He lived with me in the summers pretty much since his sophomore year of high school. He would come and stay with me, and he had no choice. He was living with me and this is how I live. If you want to be in the house, this is what's going to happen.
Gorman: His dedication to losing the weight and to get in the best shape was amazing. He comes to our house, my wife has a different menu for him.
LaRoche: As a Division I player, a high-major player, you're always trying to say, what do I have to do to have a chance to play after college? For Georges, this is the reality.
Niang eventually dropped 30 pounds that summer under LaRoche's tuteluge.
LaRoche: When he got to me in May (of 2014), (Melvin) Ejim and (DeAndre) Kane were leaving and he needed to carry the torch. I told him, Georges you need to lead by example. You can't come back weighing 270 pounds. Georges has always been receptive on what do we need to do. So he embraced it.
Papile: He started putting 12 months a year into the physical development, and he made his body as productive as it could be. Let's just say it has basketball limitations is fair to say, but he makes it like a machine.
The Cyclone years
Niang's skill development didn't stop once he reached Ames. Fred Hoiberg and his staff helped Niang improve his jump hook that would become a devastating weapon.
Gorman: His jump hook was very raw when we coached him as a young kid. I imagine Fred put some time into that too.
LaRoche: He's been doing that for a long time. He's added probably added a degree or two just with different counters, different ways he can do things, but he's always been like that.
Gorman: He came back from the Nike skills (camp) and he had the (Dirk) Nowitizki, that fadeaway shot. He didn't have that before. He's used it a few times in games this year, which were big shots. He's always trying to figure out new moves to do.
Niang became an All-American in his junior season for ISU, but he also got a new coach that season as Hoiberg left for the Bulls. Murray State's Steve Prohm was hired to guide the Cyclones for Niang's final season. Prohm didn't work to improve Niang's game as level it out.
Steve Prohm, Head coach Iowa State: Challenging him to be good every day and not living in peaks and valleys because he puts everything he has into it. That's a great, great trait. Me and him are really similar personality-wise if you're really around us. I don't know if anal is the right word, but very meticulous and want everything perfect.
LaRoche: He's so passionate, so competitive and his love of the game, that he definitely on a consistent basis would lose his cool, in game and workouts. He definitely had trouble with that in high school and he definitely had trouble with that his first year or two at Iowa State. He would get riled.
I was watching a game the other day and I was finding myself a more emotional wreck than he was. I was thinking, 'That would piss me off,' and Georges is bringing guys in and under control. That was probably the biggest area he's grown in, I'd say.
Niang's final chapters as a college player will be written this month. Niang, though, through the brilliance of his game and the undeniable magnetism of his personality, will go down as one the best players in program history, with it just a matter of time before his number hangs in the Hilton Coliseum rafters.
O'Neil: He's like Paul Bunyan or Larry Bird around (Tilton). They'll be a statue some day in the middle of the field.
Prohm: He's a great story for college basketball.
Papile: The fact that his games translates to the Big 12 in an era where the Big 12's been the dominant conference, to have four years like he's had, it's really a (heck) of a story. I hope enough people appreciate it because Georges might be the last of the Mohicans. He could be a dinosaur.
I don't know if we'll see another one like him at this level. We'll see a lot at Division III and Division II, undersized posts, but at the Big 12-level, the elite conference in America, that productivity over four years, I don't know if we'll see that type of guy again.