The Philadelphia 76ers offseason is yet to reach the level of activity many expected. With a big ol’ question mark hanging over Ben Simmons’ future with the franchise, the Sixers projected as a team that would be wheeling and dealing. Here we are, though, in late August: Simmons is still on the roster, as are young prospects Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey, and Daryl Morey went ahead and used the team’s picks in July’s NBA Draft.
The one area of the Sixers’ roster that has seen some change is the bench. Last season’s backup center Dwight Howard (1,196 minutes played) returned to the Los Angeles Lakers and in came Andre Drummond as the presumed No. 2 center to Joel Embiid. Also gone is Mike Scott (852 mintues played). His replacement figures to be the newly-signed Georges Niang.
Being a mid-rotation player in the Western Conference over the last three seasons, Sixers fans may not be totally familiar with Niang. So let’s get to know him bit better.
First things first: Georges Niang — it’s pronounced ‘George’ like you’re used to and [KNEE-yang]. Niang is a 6-foot-8 forward who has played 87 percent of his NBA minutes at power forward while the remaining 13 percent of his minutes have been spent at small forward. He will wear jersey No. 20 with the Sixers, joining a list that includes Jodie Meeks, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and (*gulps*) Markelle Fultz. Niang’s Basketball Reference page lists his nickname as “Minivan”, which is delightful.
He was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and went to high school in New Hampshire (so he might have been a Celtics fan). He played his high school ball at The Tilton School, where he was teammates with former Sixer Nerlens Noel. Niang’s successful high school career earned him a No. 56 ranking in the 2012 class by ESPNU and he went on to play four seasons at Iowa State.
In his senior season at Iowa State (2015-16), Niang averaged 20.5 points with 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He finished his college career shooting 37.2 percent on 502 3PA. But that number is a little misleading. Niang had an uncharacteristically poor shooting season his sophomore year when he shot 32.7 percent from 3PT. In his other three college seasons, Niang shot 39.2 percent or better from 3PT.
Following his four years at the NCAA level, Niang entered the 2016 NBA Draft and was selected 50th overall by the Indiana Pacers. He appeared in 23 games his rookie season but was waived in the 2017 offseason. He then started the 2017-18 season with the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors before the Utah Jazz gave him another NBA shot in January (2018). By the 2018-19 season, Niang had become a low-minute rotation player and by 2019-20 he was a regular contributor at 14.0 minutes a game. This past NBA season, his final with the Jazz, Niang appeared in all 72 games while playing 16.0 minutes per game.
The upcoming NBA season will be Niang’s sixth in the league. Because he played a full four-year career at the NCAA level, Niang is a bit older than most sixth-year players. He turned 28 years old back on June 17th of 2021. That makes him about a year younger than Tobias Harris (29 years old on July 15th, 2021), while Tobias is entering his 11th NBA season.
Threes and Spot Ups
Two numbers jump out from Niang’s 2020-21 campaign. The first is his spot up shooting rate of 59.7 percent (per 100 FGA). Only two players had higher spot up shooting rates last season than Niang: Mo Harkless, who played only 11 games, and Gary Clark, who played only 35 games. The second number that draws attention is his three-point attempt rate of 72.1 percent, with 292 of his 405 FGA coming from behind the arc. So more than half of Niang’s field goals were spot up opportunities and almost three quarters of his field goals were three-pointers. Niang finished the season with a 3PT percentage of 42.5 percent.
Niang’s 2019-20 season was a similar affair. His first season with double digit minutes (14.0 mins/game), Niang shot 40.0 percent from 3PT in 3.4 attempts per game over 66 appearances. Triples made up 69.9 percent of his overall field goal attempts. Spot up shooting accounted for 50.1 percent of his possessions ending in a field goal attempt.
As the pie charts above indicate, Niang’s second-most frequent playtype over the last two seasons was transition. His arsenal is missing the playtypes isolation, post up and cut entirely. And any type that isn’t spot up or transition is about 5.0 percent or less in frequency. Essentially, Niang is spotting up for three in the half court or he’s filling empty space in transition... to spot up for three. For a full view of Niang’s playtypes, see the table below.
Niang’s shooting charts further provide evidence of a player who is comfortable from behind the perimeter. And really, almost exclusively behind the perimeter. While Niang is an above average shooter from deep, his conversion rate inside the arc was below average this past season.
When it comes to his 2019-20 shooting chart, Niang’s interior performance may offset some concerns. He was much more of an average scorer inside the the arc. But the thing to note for both seasons is that the interior volume is low.
As for the three-point shooting, Niang is proficient from anywhere along the arc. He had a down year from the right-side corner in 2020-21, but the season before he was above average from the same location. Above the break, Niang excels, aside from the left side in 2019-20. Suffice to say he’s a three-point specialist.
Niang’s size creates a natural advantage at the perimeter, allowing him to shoot over defenders. His quick release further stacks the deck in his favor. If Niang has even a little space, he’s going to pull the trigger and close outs are often ineffective on him.
Going through Niang’s tape, you see a lot of plays like those featured in the clip above. He acted as a sort of ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option in the halfcourt. I did not detect an abundance of plays drawn up for Niang specifically. But he’s constantly shuffling along the perimeter, relocating to keep passing lanes open should a teammate dribble into a jam. For having good size, Niang finds ways to move with stealth; reactions by the opposition are often too tardy.
A final note on these charts: the shooting charts indicate that Niang does not play around the rim very much. So it should come as no surprise that he rarely draws fouls. Over his five NBA seasons, Niang has attempted just 75 free throws. For comparison, Joel Embiid took 548 free throws last season in 51 games. That’s an average of about 10.75 per game, meaning it would take Joel about seven games to surpass Niang’s career total.
Defense: Metrics & Stats
I won’t pretend to have watched enough Utah Jazz to evaluate Niang as a defender. So I’ll defer to the metrics and stats, and let you set your own expectations. Niang does not generate many turnovers, failing to produce a full steal per 36-minutes played in each of the last two seasons. And he almost never blocks opposing field goals, with 19 total in his career.
While Niang may not be disruptive on the defense end, there is reason for optimism. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric portrays Niang as having a slightly plus defensive season last year at +0.6, though he was a -1.7 in the same metric in 2019-20. Defensive box plus-minus paints a similar picture: slightly positive at 0.1 this past season, while being a slight negative at -0.5 in 2019-20.
If the metrics accurately reflect Niang’s value as a defender, he’ll be just fine.
The relatively under-the-radar signing of Niang has the potential to open up the Sixers’ offense in a big way. With Niang, Danny Green and Seth Curry all at the team’s disposal, Doc Rivers can put out lineups with three 40-plus percent three-point shooters. That type of shooting threat surrounding Joel Embiid is a scary thought for teams around the Eastern Conference.
You won’t see Georges Niang throwing down poster dunks or using a crafty dribble to get to the rim. In a lot of ways, Niang is a limited player — you could say a one-dimensional player. But there’s something to be said for a role player who, well, knows his role. Niang’s play adheres to the policy of the minimum effective dose; that is, the minimal dose needed to achieve the desired outcome. Niang is at his most effective when he’s spotting up and firing threes, so why not make that all he does?
The switch from Mike Scott to Georges Niang as backup four should pay dividends. Tobias Harris played more minutes than any other Sixer last season. That was largely a symptom of a lack of options behind Harris. When Scott played, it was a situation where he was in just about as long as Tobias needed a breather. Now, Doc Rivers can sub Harris out without losing too much offensively. Of course, there is the concern for Bball Paul Believers that Niang will block Paul Reed from playing and subsequently, developing. But let’s not forget Niang has played minutes at small forward.
At two years and less than $3.5 million per year, I see the Niang addition as having minuscule downside and very high upside.