The Sixers didn’t make any splashy signings in free agency this summer. They simply didn’t have the cap space to do so, but they still found two reserves to upgrade the end of their frontcourt rotation with Andre Drummond and Georges Niang.
With Mike Scott’s play declining again last season and smaller wings making up most of the team’s remaining forward group, a new backup 4 who provides a bit more size and shooting was a clear need heading into free agency. After signing the 6’7” Niang to a two-year, $6.8 million contract, that’s what the Sixers have found.
At media day on Monday, Doc Rivers pointed out the problems that their power forward rotation presented in the postseason.
“I thought that hurt us in the playoffs because the other team knew that, too, and they started going big,” Rivers said. “They knew at some point, we’ve gotta take Tobias [Harris] out and that put us in a bind a little bit, but that’s going to happen. Every team has some kind of weakness. They really do. So, that was ours. I thought we addressed that.”
The main way Niang will make his presence felt is as a high-volume, high-efficiency shooter. Niang proved how comfortable he is launching from outside in Utah’s three-point heavy offense, as he shot 42.5 percent from three last season on 4.1 attempts in 16 minutes per game. For his career, he’s shot an impressive 40.4 percent from three on 8.5 attempts per 36 minutes. He has a neat, fairly fast release and won’t hesitate to shoot against closeouts — something the Sixers could always use more of.
Spot-ups accounted for 59.7 percent of Niang’s possessions last season (he excelled in this area, ranking in the 85th percentile) and he thrives in the corners, but he isn’t just a standstill shooter. Niang knows how to relocate off the ball and create easier passing windows for teammates, and he can shoot a little off movement even though he won’t be sprinting around or flying off screens.
Niang should provide all the shooting skills that you want from a 4 who can compliment Joel Embiid’s interior scoring. It’s no surprise that Niang sounds eager to work with Embiid and capitalize off all the attention and double teams he’ll garner.
“The guy draws a double team every time that he steps on the floor,” Niang said at media day. “So I think that’s definitely a bonus for me, him drawing another defender and allowing me to have space to shoot threes or drive to the rim... He’s creating open shots for other guys all the time just by being a presence out on the floor.”
72.1 percent of Niang’s field goal attempts came from three last season (66.8 percent for his career), so don’t expect him to do much damage inside the arc. That said, as someone who can fake and drive past the odd closeout, offer decent (albeit not too active) cutting, and make heady extra passes, he won’t just be standing still at the arc to help keep the offense moving.
“G’s a smart player, and he can shoot the ball really, really well, so it makes it easy to play with him,” Shake Milton said after Wednesday’s practice. Milton mentioned Niang’s intelligence a couple of times, noting how it’s helping the team continue to make swift progress at camp. The Sixers have the benefit of more personnel, coaching, and schematic continuity this season than they did a year ago (bar the absence of Ben Simmons), which has helped them hit the ground running in training camp so far.
Defensively, Niang is limited on the ball. He isn’t overly quick, isn’t too agile navigating screens, and can’t change direction in a flash, but he does compete and has good discipline with his movement and shot contests. He’s also a smart team defender, generally knowing where he needs to be, rotating on time, and helping effectively. Playing for such a well-coached Jazz team that had a top-three defense in three of his four seasons there probably helped him develop some good habits and hone his IQ.
With wing defenders like Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle and a top defensive center in Embiid who can share the floor with him, Niang should fit in just fine on defense and help the Sixers maintain more size when Harris moves to the bench.
Niang has made a strong first impression to start training camp this week, with his teammates already enjoying the shooting he provides.
“The energy was amazing, especially from the returning guys,” Rivers said after the team’s first practice on Tuesday. “Usually the energy is better from the rookies and the new guys, but I thought clearly, Joel, Danny and Seth [Curry], they came with a very serious energy. And I also thought Furk [Korkmaz], Matisse and Shake, they were really good today. They enjoyed playing with Niang, you could see that. They know they have a shooter.”
With Tyrese Maxey looking set to start at point guard in Simmons’ absence, the bench will be leaning more heavily on Milton to handle the ball. The limited playmaking and off-the-bounce creation will present some challenges, but the Sixers can only make the best of the situation for now. Sharing the creative load and adding a new injection of shooting with Niang is the best way to keep the offense clicking as smoothly as possible.
Rivers has mentioned that the Sixers will be ready to play small ball at times. He also touched on the possibility of switching up the starting unit sometimes based on matchups. Rivers noted that they need to make sure they keep a wing defender in that group (whether it’s Green or Thybulle) and also highlighted the option to scale up. At this incredibly early stage, though, and with Simmons currently out of the picture, there’s going to be experimentation and some kinks to work out with new lineups.
“We also can go big with that group where we put Georges [in] and move Tobias to the 3, so there’s options there,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “We don’t know if any of them work yet, we have to seem them. Because of not having [Simmons] that’s the things we have to do.”
Harris playing at the 4 is best for all aspects of his game, so longer lineups featuring him and Niang aren’t the most appealing option (simply getting bigger and tasking Harris with guarding more quick wings won’t reduce the problem of losing Simmons’ elite combo of size and defensive versatility on the wing either).
However, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the possibility for the Sixers to get smaller, go all in on shooting, and try out Niang for stretches at center.
“Niang is, to me, the silent pickup that I personally believe will really be big for us in a lot of ways,” Rivers said at media day. “Especially if we try to play small ball, because of his ability to stretch the floor.”
Obviously losing rim protection in this scenario means it’s more of a lineup to use against smaller opponents, but at least Niang presents some flexibility and the option to maintain quality shooting.
Niang is prepared to be flexible with his position, too. The Sixers are going to have to shake up their lineups without Simmons, and while Rivers didn’t lean too much on small lineups last season (and Drummond gives them a better backup center to use, too), Niang is open to shifting to center.
“I’ve been eliminated by the Houston Rockets, who literally played with P.J. Tucker out there as a small-ball 5,” Niang said at media day. “So I understand the dynamic of having floor spacers, and sometimes what playing without a center, or having a second unit with a small-ball 5. So I’m open to all that, and I think I’m capable of that.”
Time will tell how Niang is deployed in different lineups, but there’s no doubt his skillset helps address some weaknesses. With his shooting, size, and intelligent complementary play, Niang will be able to give the bench a solid boost.