How Georges Niang Became the Biggest Mismatch in College Basketball

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2015

AP Images

AMES, Iowa — Georges Niang called a few weeks ago before a dreaded calculus final.

"Why couldn't I have been one-and-done?" Niang joked. "... Too short and not athletic enough."

The Iowa State star is college basketball's version of a flawed Frankenstein. He was blessed with great hands, textbook footwork, a jumper, handles and the ability to master so many moves that his trainer calls him his guinea pig.

But he's always been undersized (a 6'8" post player), pudgy and stuck below the rim.

In Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg's lab, he's found the formula to turn Niang into a mismatch despite any shortcomings.

Niang, a junior, is the centerpiece of one of the best (and most innovative) offenses in college basketball. The 11th-ranked Cyclones are a legitimate Big 12 title contender behind an offense that ranks 14th in adjusted efficiency this year, according to kenpom.com, and has finished sixth each of the last two seasons.

Niang doubles as a point forward and a back-to-the-basket scorer. Hoiberg claims that he shoots his jump hook from six different arm slots—like a pitcher fooling with batters—and he has a counter to just about every move in his arsenal.

"For a guy that has the perceived lack of athleticism, his ability to take off from one side of the rim and finish on the other without jumping very high, it's fascinating how he does it," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg told Bleacher Report. "I'll go back and watch film and say, 'How in the hell did that ball go in?' But he'll get that thing up on the rim, and it'll find a way to go in."

The first marquee player Hoiberg brought to Ames was Royce White, a 6'8" big man who preferred setting up teammates to scoring. White created his own name for the position he played in the Cyclones offense: the Hybrid.

"He wasn't a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5," Hoiberg said. "He was an H."

When Niang made his recruiting visit to Iowa State and had the chance to play with the team, White went to Hoiberg's office and told him: "Coach, you've got another H out there."

An "H" with limitations.

Feb 10, 2014; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Georges Niang (31) being guarded by West Virginia Mountaineers forward Devin Williams (5) at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dan Friend-USA TODAY Sports West Virginia Wins 102 - 77

On a trip to West Virginia last February, Niang stepped on the scale and saw a "6" after the "2" for the first time.

After starting the season at 245 pounds, a regimen of late-night Jimmy John's runs, chicken fingers, cookie dough ice cream and whatever else sounded good had Niang up to 260 and his coaches worried.

"They would say stuff," Niang said. "But I was playing so well, it came to a point where if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Niang had a point. He has always produced.

He was high school teammates with Nerlens Noel—a one-and-done lottery pick—and current Kansas guard Wayne Selden. Both were McDonald's All-Americans, and a who's who of college coaches visited Tilton School in New Hampshire.

"You've got [John] Calipari, you've got Bill Self, you've got Roy Williams, you've got all these coaches, and they're looking at Nerlens and they're looking at Wayne Selden," Hoiberg said. "And he was just kind of an afterthought on that team."

Some saw Niang as a lemon.

Jan 26, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) during the game against the LSU Tigers in the second half  at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated LSU 75-70. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

"What I saw when I went out there is the guy that was the most productive player," Hoiberg said. "I'm telling you, when I went out there, he absolutely abused Nerlens Noel. He was shooting over him. He was up and under. And Nerlens was barely missing blocking his shot. And if you can get your shot up over Nerlens Noel, you can get your shot up over anybody in the country."

Hoiberg had visions of using Niang all over the floor and has turned him into the most versatile big man in the country. Niang has guarded the center spot for most of his career, yet he shoots threes (291 attempts and counting) and often brings the ball up the court.

This puts traditional big men in an awkward spot, because Niang can shoot the three or drive right past them. Put a perimeter player on him, and Niang can abuse those smaller defenders in the post.

After White led Iowa State to the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years in 2012, he left for the NBA, and in stepped Niang for a team picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 by the conference's head coaches.

Niang filled in right away and averaged 12.1 points per game as a freshman, helping the Cyclones finish fourth in the Big 12 and get back to the NCAA tournament.

Last season, he upped his scoring average to 16.7 points and became even more deadly as a one-on-one mismatch. He was one of two post players in the country who finished in the top 30 in scoring efficiency on isolation plays, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).

He also ranked fourth in assist rate for players 6'7" or taller, according to Ken Pomeroy.

From February on, Niang averaged 18.4 points and led his team to a Big 12 tournament title for the first time since 2000.

That made it tough to question his habits. But everything changed for Niang on one play in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

On a ball-screen switch, Niang found himself guarding North Carolina Central star Jeremy Ingram, who drove the ball hard to the basket. Niang went up to attempt to block the shot, and his right foot came down on teammate Dustin Hogue's.

Niang immediately felt pain and came out of the game, but he thought it was a foot cramp. Less than two minutes later, he was back in and scored two more buckets, but he couldn't move to his right. When he ran, he favored the inside of his foot because it hurt so much.

When he came back out of the game, he went straight to the locker room and got his foot X-rayed. He had broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and was done for the tournament.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

"I wanted to sit there and pout and cry," Niang said. "By the time I got back to the locker room, I was ready to break down, but then I heard the guys yelling and celebrating coming in, and I really didn't want to take away anything from that.

"I felt like we still had a pretty solid team as it was, and I didn't want to take anybody's spirits down because I felt like we could still make a run. It wasn't about me."

Iowa State knocked off North Carolina in the next round and then lost by five to Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

"It was torture," Niang said. "Sitting there knowing you can't do anything.... It was like someone punching your best friend in the face and you're strapped down and can't do anything. You're helpless.

"It really helped me realize that you can't take this game of basketball for granted, and anything can be taken away in a manner of seconds."

Georges Niang's rehabilitation project this summer took him to the 6 a.m. yoga class at the Prasada Yoga Center in North Hampton, New Hampshire.

Niang and former high school teammate Alex Oriakhi, decked out in basketball gear, walked into a room full of soccer moms in spandex, and all eyes looked up at the giants in the room. Niang could see the wheels turning in their heads.

"What are these guys doing here?"

As the class started, a lot of grunts and choice words were coming from Niang and Oriakhi's side of the room.

"If they struggle with something on the court, they're not saying 'oh, gosh darn it.' They're more expletive than that," Niang's trainer, Noah LaRoche, said. "You can imagine this woman hearing this 6'9" guy drop the F-bomb because he can't go from a downward dog to a three-legged dog."

This summer, Niang went and did whatever it took to his get his body right.

After school was out, he moved in with LaRoche for five weeks.

Niang would wake up to a smoothie with kale, carrots, avocado, water and ice, and then head to the gym. After yoga, strength and conditioning and then getting some shots up, he'd head back to LaRoche's for a lunch that usually included a lean piece of chicken, grilled asparagus and a salad.

After lunch, it was back to the gym for more basketball until dinner—which included another salad with chicken or fish.

Dec 4, 2014; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones forward Georges Niang (31), guard Monte Morris (11) and guard Naz Long (15) react during a timeout against the Arkansas Razorbacks at James H. Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State beat Arkansas 95-77.  Mandatory Cred

"I just really took everything to the extreme," Niang said. "I went from eating horribly to eating at the right times. Waking up every morning at six and starting my day off. I actually felt like I was living like a clean human being."

Niang got down to 225 pounds and unveiled his new body on Instagram in July.

"You can definitely catch Georges looking in the mirror, flexing his guns, checking his abs out a little bit," teammate Naz Long said. "You know, why not? He lost so much weight, and he looks great. He could be in a Weight Watchers before and after."

At first glance, Niang's game hasn't changed much. He's still going to the same moves and still looks to be moving in slow motion, but his production has gone up in areas where his weight held him back.

He's rebounding the ball better, fouling less and getting to the free-throw line more often. Even though his scoring average is down a tick (from 16.7 PPG to 14.9), he's more efficient.

Georges Niang's Improved Statistics
Def. Reb. %FC/40FT RateOff. Rating

"I watched a lot of film when I was injured and seeing how lazy I was on the offensive and defensive boards," Niang said. "I figured if you're in better shape, you've got to have more energy to go do stuff.

"I'm never really tired. I don't really try to bail guys out of situations with fouls. I feel like I'm more mentally aware out there."

Hoiberg says he can play Niang for longer stretches now and has been able to use him differently on the defensive end, because he's quicker laterally.

"I don't think it's noticeable, but I feel faster," Niang said.

Now that Marquette transfer Jameel McKay is eligible—he played his first game on Dec. 20—Niang is getting to play next to a true big man for the first time.

Hoiberg told Bleacher Report earlier this year that once McKay was eligible, he planned to use some big lineups that would match up Niang against a smaller wing. The defensive impact of McKay next to Niang and his improved defense gives the Cyclones a legitimate chance to win the Big 12 regular-season title for the first time since 2001.

As for his weight, Niang has been able to maintain between 226 and 227 pounds.

He does have one weakness, though—his mom's chocolate chip cookies.

On a recent trip to Ames, an empty platter of Alison Niang's cookies was on the counter in the Iowa State players' lounge. Georges admitted he had indulged and then lit up when he started talking about his mom.

After Georges went back to school in August, Alison found out the name of the gym where her son had been training all summer and started working out five days a week.

By the time she went to visit Georges 11 weeks later, she had lost 20 pounds.

"It was something we could share together. Another way to connect," Alison said. "A mother and son at 21 years old, what do you have in common?"

Don't feel bad, Alison.

There are few in this world who share much in common with Georges Niang, and that includes the entire college basketball population.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.