by Daniel Olsen | The 3-1 lead is a taboo subject among Jazz and now Clippers fans. These two talented teams fell prey to the new Comeback Kids: The Denver Nuggets. Most Jazz fans would like to forget this. One 3-1 the Jazz fans should remember is the player who wears jersey number 31: George Niang.
Niang is a likable role player off the Jazz bench that is a favorite – especially when he is hitting his shots. Even outside of basketball he is making his name known. Just search “Georges Drive and Dish” wherever you listen to podcasts and you can listen to a series of interviews between Niang and other players, coaches and stars.
Niang wasn’t always projected to be an NBA role player. He was a great player on The Tilton School (a college preparatory school in New Hampshire), and ended his high school career ranked in the Top 100 of his recruiting class. Niang did have an elite teammate in Nerlens Noel in his high school days. He turned down offers from Iowa, Providence, Texas A&M and Seton Hall before selecting the Iowa State Cyclones as his college of choice.
Fred Hoiberg was the head coach at the time in Ames, Iowa. Behind this basketball mastermind, the Cyclones had golden years all throughout his tenure. He became the fastest coach to win 100 games at the school where he once played in college.
Niang gradually improved his game until he was averaging 20 points per game in his senior year. He had experienced ups and downs in the NCAA tournament. It was blessing to be a perennial tournament team but defeat still stung whether it was in the Sweet 16 or to a “Cinderella” 14 seed UAB team in the first round.
After becoming a consensus second-team All-American, he was drafted 50th overall by the Indians Pacers. After making his mark as a G-League journeyman for the first couple years, Niang got his time to shine in the Jazz rotation off the bench.
The NBA is a different beast. Everyone else was a top performer in their high school, college or even in leagues from overseas. Niang has his strengths as a shooter and great teammate but is often targeted by opposing offenses as he has been labeled a bad defender. That’s not necessarily true but with that label, it becomes double challenge to overcome the onslaught from opposing offense as well as gain the confidence of coaches to stay on the floor.
This year Niang has seen his role increase to 14 minutes per game. When he first started with the Jazz he struggled to get any minutes. He had to prove himself by showing out for the Salt Lake City Stars in the G-League.
Niang is more than just a valuable 40 percent shooter from three. His nickname “The Minivan” has led to a lovable identity from local media which led him to produce the start of several player-made podcasts during the hiatus of basketball. COVID-19 took millions of lives around the globe. The Jazz faced that head on when the announcement of Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19 spread across the globe.
Niang interviewed different teammates, coaches and other well-known figures. From March 31st to May 14th, Niang posted a weekly episode to total eight episodes. They were available in video as well as audio format.
Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson were his current teammates to be featured on the podcast. Former Jazz player Bryon Russell joined to give his version of Michael Jordan’s last shot as a Chicago Bull (at his expense).
Other guests included Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, U.S Soccer star Amy Rodriguez, team chef Anthony Zamora, and University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham. Niang was very personal as he helped others relate to his guests in a casual yet deep level.
There may be some changes this offseason but Niang, like so many others before him, is leaving his mark on the Utah Jazz. From Ekpes Book Club, to Rubio’s fight against cancer, to Niang’s love for people, the Jazz are a team that values human expression.
It’s true that they have yet to capture a championship but sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination.