It’s the first quarter of the Sixers’ Feb. 27 road game against the Knicks — their second outing with James Harden on the floor. With 2:28 left in the period and 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Danny Green sets up in the strong-side corner as Furkan Korkmaz and Paul Millsap clear to the weakside. Harden is initiating the offense and flows into a pick-and-pop with Georges Niang. Once Harden gets a step on his defender and Niang slips the screen, sending Obi Toppin towards Harden to cut off a potential driving lane, Niang is instantly left wide open for three.
This was Harden’s first assist to Niang, and since then plays like this have become routine. The two new teammates have fit together absolutely perfectly.
Niang has been a fantastic addition to the Sixers all season. He’s playing more minutes (23 per game) than ever and averaging a career-high 9.4 points while shooting 40.1 percent from three on five attempts a night (7.9 per 36 minutes). Niang has given Philly a much-needed upgrade to their backup 4 position with his quick-trigger shooting on high volume, partnered with enough savvy and strength as a driver to make the most of his opportunities inside the arc as well. Now, all of those qualities, led by his marksmanship from beyond the arc, has made him an ideal player to complement Harden.
Out of the 14 three-pointers Niang has made in his first five games with Harden, The Beard has assisted on eight of them. And seeing as Niang has already scored at least 14 points in two of these five outings, he’s been productive.
Niang can operate in a variety of ways as a shooter. He isn’t going to sprint around off screens, but he knows how to relocate into space, he’s comfortable shooting from a couple of steps behind the arc, and he’s always ready to shoot. Closeouts don’t bother him and he fires at high volume (efficiently), which is a skill that all NBA teams need. It’s exactly what Joel Embiid in particular has needed next to him to help stretch defenses and punish double teams, and now having the elite playmaking and vision of Harden means Niang can find even more opportunities to get open.
“I mean, [Harden] does a great job of making everybody look at him and then they forget about me and it’s been working,” Niang said after the Sixers’ recent win against the Cavaliers. “We should do that a lot. I mean, he’s a great player. He does what he does. Like I’ve said before, he’s a basketball savant. He just finds crafty ways to get other guys involved and to score. And I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving half of that.”
Whether Niang is drifting into space when his defender helps onto a Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, or he’s ready to launch trailer threes in transition or shoot after a simple kick-out pass, Harden is finding Niang on time and on target whenever he’s open.
Then there are plays where the Sixers can use more screening and misdirection to generate open looks. On the possession below, they use some slow “Chicago” action, which is where the ball-handler receives a pin-down screen from the wing before taking the ball from a dribble hand-off. The Sixers have been using this out of their “Delay” setup (where the center is operating as a playmaker from the middle of the floor) and have been getting Harden’s initial screeners to flip the screen at the last second to help throw off defenders. If defenses are expecting Harden to receive a back screen so he can move into space for a pass near the corner, the screen being flipped at the last second can throw them off slightly as Harden moves to the top of the floor instead. Once that happens here, Brandon Goodwin gets caught on the screen, Evan Mobley switches onto Harden after the hand-off, and as Goodwin briefly stands in the way of a potential pass to the cutting Paul Millsap, that slight delay is all that’s needed for Harden to pass to Niang with enough time to bury a triple:
One of the highlights of Niang’s partnership with Harden so far has been their connection in pick-and-pops. It’s a simple play, but one that’s tough to guard now that the Sixers have a driver and passer of Harden’s caliber, and a shooter as reliable as Niang. If defenses switch, Harden is often going to have a favorable matchup against Niang’s man to attack off the dribble. If defenses try to trap or hedge and recover against Harden, he can comfortably make a quick pass or send the ball behind his back to beat the two defenders and set up Niang for open threes:
Niang is happy setting a solid screen or slipping straight into space, and then he can just let Harden do the rest. As soon as Harden sends the ball his way, Niang will be set and ready to shoot against recovering defenders.
“Georges separates, and that is what we’re trying to get our other guys to do,” Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ win against Cleveland. “A lot of our guys set picks and just turn. Georges sets picks and runs away. He knows. Georges is no dummy … Georges wasn’t born yesterday, he knows exactly what he was doing. The good news is that James was giving it to him.”
Harden has operated in a very similar way with certain sharpshooting teammates in the past. When he was in Houston, Harden had excellent chemistry with Ryan Anderson in similar actions (which @nmzhoops on Twitter was right to point out).
In addition to the sheer volume of endless threes those Rockets teams attempted, part of what made their offense so deadly is that they spaced out defenses from so far beyond the three-point line. Anderson routinely set screens from around 30 feet out before popping into space, and Niang is starting to do the same.
When you consider how quickly and accurately Niang can shoot from distance, and you look back at old film from 2016 and 2017 of Harden working with Anderson, it’s no surprise Harden has carried this kind of pick-and-pop connection to Philly.
“I can’t say that it’s like anyone I have ever played with,” Niang said after the Sixers’ latest win against Chicago when talking about playing with Harden. “I mean, I’m sure if I really sat back and thought about it guys that I’ve watched, but when I’m out there on the court the fact that he draws so much attention as a scorer and then he just has an ability to make quick passes or no-look passes and hit me right on the hands.”
“I mean, it’s like a dream come true. My job is pretty simple after that and he just does such a good job of reading the game and letting the game come to him and not forcing anything. I am excited that he is on our side.”
Niang has done all the Sixers could ask for in his role this season. From his game to his trash talking, it’s easy to see why fans love him already.
Now, with Harden’s help and their quickly developing chemistry, the value of Niang’s shooting is able to shine even more.