Georges Niang is hardly a household name among casual fans, but he has earned respect the hard way: by winning. Niang played in the shadow of Nerlens Noel and Wayne Selden in prep school but was part of an Iowa State trio a year ago — along with Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane — that wound up winning the league tourney.
Now it’s Niang’s team, and the 6-7 Massachusetts native has completely transformed his body. Niang discusses his trash-talking methods, why he stuck with Iowa State and where he got his first name from.
This interview and more appears in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports college basketball annual, available on newsstands and in our online store now.
OK, so why the “S” at the end of your first name?
I was named after one of my dad’s best friends, who was originally from Africa. It’s actually supposed to be pronounced with a French accent since he was French, but I don’t want anyone to do that. But the “S” is silent. I’ve heard people pronounce it so many different ways that I don’t even bother to correct them. I just go with it.
You played against Nerlens Noel and Wayne Selden every day for two years at the Tilton School in New Hampshire. What did you learn from those guys?
I learned how to slow down playing against Nerlens, how to put the defender on the hot seat and make them guess on what move is coming. I learned how to compete against Wayne. Those guys made me a lot better, but the guy I really watched and learned from when I arrived at Tilton was Alex Oriakhi. I was a freshman and he was a junior at the time, and I really tried to model myself after Alex. He’s a great kid who worked so hard.
You committed to Iowa State as an unknown, but then started to get attention after a strong showing at the Peach Jam. Why did you remain loyal to the Cyclones despite high-profile schools trying to get you to re-open your recruitment?
I remember the first time Coach (Fred) Hoiberg saw me. I was playing St. Mark’s — which had Nik Stauskas, Kaleb Tarczewski and Alex Murphy — and I didn’t miss a shot. I was 11-for-11, and he said afterwards that he wanted me to be a part of Plan A at Iowa State. They were the first school that believed in me. I trusted them and committed on May 15 before my junior season. I’m not going to call out specific schools, but there were schools who called me and told me not to go to Iowa State — that there’s nothing in Iowa and to come play with us. But I knew Iowa State was where I wanted to be. I never even thought about going anywhere else.
You’ve had two pretty good seasons in Ames, and I saw that one ESPN writer even had you on his Preseason first-team All-America team. However, there are plenty of fans who have no idea who you are. Why is that?
I agree. I think there are plenty of fans who think I’m just a bum who should be down at the YMCA, but I think I get respect from the guys that really know basketball. I work so hard, and I don’t think people understand how hard I work to improve. A lot of players in the league are gifted with athleticism. I wasn’t really gifted with any.
You broke your foot in Iowa State’s opening-round NCAA win against NC Central and weren’t able to do anything until May, yet you look to be in the best shape of your career when you showed up at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July. How were you able to manage the transformation?
The first week of May, I was still in a boot. I went back to Massachusetts with my trainer, and he sat me down. I weighed 255 and had 16 percent body fat. He said we can do it the hard way or you can walk away. I went with the hard way. I did yoga every day, lifted and did conditioning every day for four weeks and went twice every day on the court. They were long days, but were worth it. Now everyone who first sees me reacts the same way: “Holy @#$%.” It feels good because I’m a lot healthier than I was before. I feel better when I wake up. I eat better. It’s just a lifestyle change. Now I’m at 227 to 230 and am trying to get that vertical up!
What do you remember about the game against NC Central in which you broke your foot?
I felt a snap and fell to the ground. I’d broken my left foot before. I came out of the game and Coach Hoiberg told me to sit down. After a little while, he told me to check back in. It didn’t hurt when I got up, but then it was bad when I took the first couple of steps. I went in, scored five points — on a 3 and a floater — and then told him to take me out of the game. They did x-rays and told me I broke it. I was upset, but more because I felt bad for my team.
DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim are both gone now. How does that alter your role?
I think I’ll have to do more of what they did well — be a better rebounder since Melvin was such a great rebounder and be a better playmaker since that’s what DeAndre did so well. I was a leader last year, but I’ll have to step up in that area as well. I think the biggest thing for me is just to make plays.
Fred Hoiberg seems so mellow on the sidelines and even off the court. What’s an example when he actually showed some real emotion?
It came after we lost three games in a row — to Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Usually, he walks into the film room and is really quiet. He rolls in, says “What’s up, fellas” and sits down. Well, that day he walked in and says, “Show some emotion, guys.” He goes up to one of our guys and chest-bumps him — he’s yelling and screaming. I thought Tom Izzo had walked in. But he wanted to let us know that we played with no life.
You are admittedly one of the better trash-talkers around. Who else do you respect for their trash-talking ability and what is your reasoning for talking to opponents?
DeAndre Kane knows how to get under guys’ skin. He’d make guys take tough shots. (Former Oklahoma State guard) Markel Brown can talk with the best of them. He’s a silent assassin and talks when no one is expecting it. I usually do it when someone is killing us and you want them to get off their game. You want to draw a rift between the other team. For instance, when (Oklahoma State’s) Marcus Smart is killing us, I’d start telling him he should have left last year — and then tell his teammates that he doesn’t trust them.
You guys will add a couple more transfers this year in Bryce Dejean-Jones (UNLV) and Abdel Nader (Northern Illinois) in addition to junior college transfer Jameel McKay. How different will this team be?
We’ll buckle down better defensively, but with Fred, you’ll always expect a team that will compete every night. I think we’ll have more overall talent this year than in my first two years, but the key is putting it all together. We don’t have the chemistry yet — and that can make or break a season.
What’s your favorite place to play other than your gym?
Phog Allen (Fieldhouse, at Kansas). There’s so much energy in that building. I love going in there. The fans are as crazy as our fans and it’s just wild.
What’s your least favorite place to play?
I don’t want to upset Buddy (Hield), but probably Oklahoma or TCU. We always play in Oklahoma in the morning and it’s so dull. There’s also nothing exciting about Norman. TCU is always dead, although they should be better this year.
Other than Coach Hoiberg, who would be a coach you’d want to play for?
This might get me into trouble, but (Kansas) Coach (Bill) Self. I really have a lot of respect for him, because I like the way he runs a tight ship — and even though he does it differently than Coach Hoiberg, he demands a lot from his guys.
Who is the toughest player you’ve had to guard?
It was Romero Osby from Oklahoma a couple years ago. I held him to seven points the first time we played, but then he dialed me up for 27 and did it with every type of move.
Where would you be if you weren’t at Iowa State?
If Boston College had offered me a scholarship, that’s where I’d probably be. I grew up down the road and always wanted to stay close to home.