The plan is to institute a more random offense. Something with more ball movement and less standing around. Something more democratic and less scout-able.
That would be perfect for Georges Niang, who lacks the raw athleticism to beat his man one-on-one but has the court awareness and passing ability to contribute within a five-man concept.
Niang hopes to reboot his game in Orlando, where the Pacers begin Summer League play on Saturday. First-round draft pick T.J. Leaf left for California on Thursday to fulfill his role as “best man” in his brother’s wedding in California and will rejoin the team on Sunday. For one game, at least, that will direct much of the attention — and the ball — to Niang, last year’s second-round pick who made a positive first impression but became nearly invisible when the real games began.
Niang had 17 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals in 25 minutes in the Pacers’ opening Summer League game a year ago, an attention-grabbing debut that made observers wonder if the franchise had found another Boris Diaw or Draymond Green. He cooled off from there, finishing league play with averages of 10.2 points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists.
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Those rather modest numbers, however, carved out a niche that represents the versatility of Niang’s skills and his best hope for NBA survival. Of the players who averaged more points than him, only five averaged more rebounds. Of those five, none averaged more assists.
He left Orlando feeling pretty good about himself, and his chance of finding playing time during the regular season.
“What kid wouldn’t, when you played pretty well?” he said.
Niang quickly learned, however, that Summer League bears little resemblance to the regular season. The competition is greater than in college, but not nearly what it becomes against veteran NBA players. Stuck behind Paul George, C.J. Miles, and Glenn Robinson III in the wing rotation, he played in just 23 games for a total of 93 garbage-time minutes. He scored total 21 points, just half a point more than his scoring average as a senior at Iowa State.
He’s hoping to re-introduce himself in Orlando and begin the process of earning a place in the rotation of what figures to be a remixed team next season. He doesn’t know who he’ll be competing against for playing time next season, but it really doesn’t matter at this point.
“I’m approaching the Summer League the same either-or,” he said. “I can only control what I can control, and that’s how much energy I give on a day-in, day-out basis. If that means more opportunities for me, great. If that means I have to sit back and learn a little bit, great. But I’m going to try even harder to get on the court.”
This time around, he’ll be older, wiser and noticeably smaller. He’s lost about 20 pounds since the end of the season, when his inexperience and the winter months of inactivity caught up with him. He’s also nearly 10 pounds lighter than last year’s Summer League weight.
“I had to get rid of the sludge of not playing,” he said. “It’s tough, but the thing in professional sports is you have to find a routine that’s good for you and stick to that and make it work. They tell you that before you get in the NBA, but you really have to experience it to know what exactly is going on.
“Days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months and the next thing you know the season’s over and it flew by. Someone read me a quote, ‘Look in the mirror, that’s your competition.’ You have to control what you can control, and what you can control is how much better you’re getting every day.”
Niang, who lives downtown, has worked out twice each day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse most days since the season ended, with the evening session devoted to making — not just taking — 500 defended shots. With his limited athleticism, he’s going to have to be a 3-point threat to have any chance of playing. He hit just 1-of-12 during the season, but his college accuracy – better than 39 percent in three of his four seasons at Iowa State – is the more accurate measurement.
For him to get shots, though, coach Nate McMillan will have to increase the tempo and reduce the structure of the offense. McMillan planned to do that last season, but abandoned it when the defense didn’t hold up. Lance Stephenson’s arrival late last season was the first step in reviving that desired style of play, and other roster moves could make it more appropriate for next season.
McMillan told assistant coach Popeye Jones, who will coach the Pacers’ Summer League team, to implement that system in practice this week, and use it in the games in Orlando. Niang did not object.
“Georges does a good job of playing that way,” Jones said. “He’s such a smart player and understands how to randomly space and cut. I think he’ll benefit from that style of play this week.”
Maybe even next season. Niang learned last summer a lot can happen between July and October, but at least this time he knows what to expect.
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