Georges Niang of the Utah Jazz went on a zoom recently to share his story in a Q & A format with about 15 high school coaches. In middle school, Niang was coached by Rick Gorman who arranged for Niang to be part of the fireside chat. In Gorman’s words, Niang never forgets where he came from. For ninety minutes, Niang generously and candidly spoke about a variety of important topics along his journey to the NBA. He spoke on motivation, focus, humility, accountability, routines, and leadership. These terms are all fancy buzzwords if you shout them out in succession, but Niang dug into great depth with each. By the end of the night, Niang’s perspective and stories were relevant and repeatable for any high school or college program. Here are my takeaways.
Niang on Motivation and Focus
Growing up in Methuen, Massachusetts Niang loved a challenge. Much like anyone who reaches a lottery destination such as the NBA, there were many doubters along the way. In a calm way, Niang told us these people added fuel for him. He enjoys proving doubters wrong even to this day.
That narrative is relatively typical for anyone that ends up in professional sports. What stood out after hearing Niang speak about his journey was not the goal itself, but his focus on one step of the ladder at a time. Niang knew in the back of his mind that the NBA was an end goal. He never let that get in the way of making small improvements. Instead he consistently said he focused on getting one percent better.
From fourth grade through sixth grade, Georges Niang focused almost exclusively on developing his skill in the post with his back to the basket. At a time when Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett won MVPs, it is easy to see why. The three-point shot and emphasis on space were not what they are today. Most coaches at all levels look at the tallest player and immediately make plans to turn the player into a post threat. Niang, who is listed at 6 foot 7 inches today, intimidated the other team as soon as he showed up in the gym because of his size.
Gradually, one of his coaches (Gorman) recognized that Niang needed to develop other skills. The next step in the individual offensive growth was developing a mid-range shot at around the free throw as a seventh-grader. Shortly after he demonstrated proficiency from that range, Niang extended out to the three-point line.
Finally, the last step in his individual development was ball skills. Despite his talents to score at a very young age, passing was an essential skill early in his development. His passing skills are largely attributed to his decision-making on double teams in youth basketball. Niang frequently passed to the open man if a second defender came toward him. As a result, he became accustomed to helping defenders lean closer to their man anticipating a pass as games unfolded. When players forgot to help, he scored. The simple thought process paid dividends when he went to college. Niang was a tremendous passer at Iowa State (he is tenth in school history despite playing forward).
Reflecting on the Player Development Process
The three-point shot is very important in the modern day game, but Niang would not change a thing about his development. He told us that people see what a shooter Kevin Durant is and instantly everyone wants to emulate what he does. There is only one Kevin Durant. Niang credits versatility as a huge factor in getting him to where he is today. Playing against different positions in practice and being guarded by different positions forced him to evolve.
Shifting Focus and Motivation
One of my favorite quotes regarding focus and motivation comes from the book Inner Excellence by Jim Murphy. Lewis Pugh swam an unprecedented distance of 1 kilometer in Arctic waters for the cause of global warming. These were the words of his performance coach David Becker:
Your team consists of twenty-nine people from ten nations. I’m going to put one of their flags at every hundred-meter mark. The first flag will be the Norwegian flag, because that will get you into the water [Pugh is British, a rival of Norway.] The second flag will be the Swedish flag, and then the Russian flag, and then the Canadian flag, and so on and so forth, until you get to the British flag at the end. All I want you to do is think about those people who have sacrificed so much for you, who’ve inspired you so much that you’re actually here today. And when you stand at the start, all I want you think about are the Norwegians on your team. Just think about the hundred-meter mark. Please, Lewis, do not think about doing a kilometer; you will never make it.
Gorman told us that the travel team Georges Niang played with was really, really good. They had a number of players that graduated into collegiate athletics most notably Niang. At such a young age, it would have been easy to feel invincible. Niang always kept his eye on the next flag though.
When he got drafted by the Indiana Pacers, it would have been easy for him to exhale and stop working. Niang told the coaches that players cannot let draft night be their highlight. He added, “The toughest thing with young kids is that moment of achievement.” That is when the hard work stops.
Niang on Humility
The Pacers cut ties with Georges Niang after only one season. He signed with Golden State in August of 2017 and ended up playing pretty well in the G-League which led to interest from the Jazz where he is today. He shared a story in the brief time he spent with Golden State that serves as a vivid example of humility for adolescents.
The Best Keep Working
Georges Niang and another player the Warriors recently signed were getting up extra shots after a team workout. After grabbing a board, Niang sees someone sprinting over out of the corner of his eye. It is Kevin Durant. Niang saw him coming and in the seconds it took Durant to arrive you can imagine the thoughts that crept into his mind. Did they do something wrong? Was KD upset about the workout? None of the above. Durant asked if he could shoot with them.
Durant received MVP of the NBA Finals just a few months before asking to shoot with Niang. Only a few players at any time can justify that they are the best in the world. At that moment, Durant earned the right. And instead of isolating himself, he wanted to shoot with two role players.
The story is a great indication of Durant’s competitiveness, which is what Niang emphasized to the high school coaches. I also think it is the type of example a coach at lower levels can apply to describe what humility means. Can you imagine the best player on a high school or college team asking two freshmen if she can join their shooting group? Think about what that does to culture. Instantly the freshmen feel valued. Teammates emulate the best player’s actions for better or worse. The mentality that KD demonstrates in this example is the sign of a welcoming culture.
Niang told us that Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are the same way. Always competing, looking to shoot, and stay in a routine. They stay hungry regardless of results and past success.
Buying into a Role
Georges Niang said that everyone in Utah fills a role. Niang’s role is to shoot corner three’s or drive if the three is taken away. Those are the skills that he develops most. His role has been different at every turn as he has moved from youth basketball, AAU, high school, college, and the professional ranks. The role is somewhat inconsequential according to Niang. What matters is doing everything in his power to maximize the impact of that role to help his team.
Niang added that Klay Thompson is the same way. If you have ever studied how often Thompson dribbles, it’s evident that he is a catch and shoot guy on offense. I doubt that Thompson spends much time developing that skill on his own in relation to the time he spends shooting. The idea of coaches and players focusing on making their greatest skill stronger often gets lost as we try to find flaws. Niang’s perspective as a professional that knows he is a role player is something we need all parties to consider if teams are going to reach their potential.
Humility off the Court
One of the coaches asked Georges Niang if there was a book he recommended to high school aged players. Niang told us The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday and he also mentioned The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon. Listening to him speak throughout the Zoom conference, I got the impression he is well-read on many books related to athletic performance. The phrase “one percent better” was uttered at least four times. Niang consistently reiterated controlling his attitude and his reactions.
I got the sense that Georges Niang is perpetually focused on what he can do to improve and not external factors. After the game he probably is not the type to question the refs about calls or coaches about playing time. I almost got the sense listening to him that I was re-reading Burn Your Goals by Jamie Gilbert and Joshua Medcalf.
The willingness to read, self-reflect, and internalize the message from books are tremendous examples of a player’s willingness to do unrequired work.