Among the most pleasant surprises in the 2021-2022 Sixers season thus far — which has seen a seismic, midseason trade, an MVP-caliber performance from Joel Embiid, and a breakout campaign from second-year guard Tyrese Maxey — has been a career year from unheralded offseason signee Georges Niang.
After completing a four-year stint in Utah, the Sixers signed Niang as a free agent last summer on a two-year contract worth just shy of $7 million total. And while some Sixers fans had little idea who Niang was altogether, many who did knew him to be nothing more than a standstill shooter of little import to a team’s ability to win or lose games. Despite consistently knocking down his long-range attempts, Niang never logged more than 16 minutes per game with the Jazz.
Sixty games into his Sixers tenure, and I think it’s safe to say that any prior assumption that Niang was nothing more than an inconsequential unitasker either severely belied his true ability to impact winning or failed to project who Niang might be able to become if given the proper trust in the right situation.
With the Sixers so far, Niang has been excellent. He’s averaging career highs in minutes (23), points (9.4), and three-point makes and three-point attempts (2.0 and 5.0) per game. Since the acquisition of James Harden, Niang has been among the first subs off the bench, coming in to line up next to Embiid and fire off the catch when necessary. And Niang’s quick trigger from beyond is no foregone conclusion on this team — he’s often the perfect antidote to Tobias Harris’ puzzling shyness when it comes to taking catch-and-shoot threes and instead opting to dribble into a morass of nothingness. Niang knows exactly who he is and what he’s supposed to do on the court at all times. If the ball rotates to him with an inch of daylight, the shot is going up.
It’s been evident how much Harden has enjoyed playing with Niang in particular. Historically, role players who are content to shoot it when they catch it and screen and defend have gelled well with Harden’s style of play and Niang is no exception.
And hey, speaking of defense — I’ve been pretty impressed! He’s nicknamed “Minivan” so he’s not going to knock you out athletically, but for a player who’s inherently behind the 8-ball when it comes to quickness and jumping ability, I think he’s proven to be a solid team defender when called upon. He knows where to be, rotates well, and is unafraid to take on tough assignments. He started against the Bucks and guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo (with tons of help), I mean, c’mon.
Then there’s the extra stuff. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Georges Niang hit a three and not immediately scream. He’ll scream at anybody. If he’s in front of the Sixers’ bench, he’ll scream happily, gassing himself up to his buddies. If he’s in front of an opposing bench, God knows he’s gonna talk trash to anyone within earshot about how that shot just went in. He’ll scream to anyone. Alan Horwitz can get it, it doesn’t matter. It’s tremendous.
He’s a great postgame quote, too which we in Philadelphia love in our bench guys.
Reporter: "When a game like this gets away from you early, what's the general feeling on the bench?"— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) February 16, 2022
Georges Niang: "Oh shit."
Matt Stairs would be proud.
All of this — his unheralded signing, his consistent yet workmanlike play combined with his expressive on-court demeanor, his unique physique, his endearing personality — combine to make me think that Niang has everything it takes to become a Philadelphia sports cult hero in no time.
When I say cult hero, of course I’m not talking about the Mt. Rushmore folks. I’m talking about the lesser knowns. The players who in a few years might wind up in one of our buddy Dave Reuter’s books.
Think T.J. McConnell. Sal Fasano. Corey Clement. Mike Scott. Tony Wroten. Players who overcame physical limitations, stayed within themselves and their roles and built a bond with the city’s fans despite their relatively modest playtime distribution and negligible national acclaim.
But Niang’s guile, fire, and knowhow — plus the way his particular skill-set make him a perfect fit for the Harden, Embiid and Maxey Sixers — have made his offseason addition an absolute steal by Daryl Morey.
I’m calling it now: Niang is going to have a capital ‘M’ Moment for the Sixers before this season is through. Think Mike Scott’s game-winning three against Brooklyn in Game 4 of round one a few years back. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.