Andre Drummond long joked that he had been waiting for this particular phone call. Georges Niang, meanwhile, was pleasantly surprised to receive it.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers individually dialed up Drummond and Niang during free agency to make his pitch on how they could each help fortify the backup front-court spots. The conversations sold both players on their potential with the team, and now Drummond and Niang are part of a second unit that Rivers said “dominated” the starters during Thursday’s scrimmage.
“That was the swinger in me wanting to be here,” Niang said of his conversation with Rivers. “Just simply because that’s the guy that’s taking me in and out of the game. He had a vision for me, and it aligned with [how] I thought I fit in. He wants to win right away, and so do I. I want to be in a good culture, and that’s what he’s building here.
“Obviously, when I got off the phone, I was real excited because I thought, before I even made the decision, I had a home here in Philly.”
Niang and Drummond have known each other since they were teenagers. Drummond attended St. Thomas More School in Connecticut, and his AAU team played against Niang’s squad from the Boston area. But they took vastly different paths to reach this point in their NBA careers.
Drummond was once a max player, a two-time All-Star and a four-time rebounding champion who is now aiming to revive his career — and pursue a championship ring — on a veteran minimum deal. Niang was a second-round draft pick who spent time in the G League and on a two-way contract with the Utah Jazz before carving out an NBA niche as a stretch-big by “stacking consistent days” on top of each other. He signed a two-year, $6.7 million deal with the Sixers this summer.
Drummond also met Rivers’ family during high school, when he was roommates at St. Thomas More with Doc’s legally adopted son, Adam Jones. As Drummond’s career blossomed in Detroit, he and Rivers developed a running “When you gonna come get me?” quip.
But after Drummond was dealt to Cleveland at the 2020 trade deadline, bought out a season later, signed by the Lakers and then benched from his starting role in the 2021 playoffs, it was Rivers’ turn to ask, “Why are you at where you’re at? Let’s do something about that.”
Drummond, who averaged 14.9 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.1 blocks per game with the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, is willing to accept a lesser role as a reliable backup and spot starter when MVP contender Joel Embiid is injured or periodically rests in order to maintain his health. Reserve wing Matisse Thybulle describes Drummond’s presence as “[captaining] the court,” thanks to his blend of size, athleticism, and skill in the post.
“He’s such a load. He moves so fast. He runs the court so well. He passes great,” Thybulle said. “All these things play major roles in everyone else just being comfortable and confident out there.”
Added Drummond: “My priorities here are just to be open-minded and accept what comes. Be ready to play, bring hard work, bring toughness to this team. Just gonna try to gel with these guys and make sure everybody’s together, be a great locker-room guy. … I think Doc was very smart for taking a chance on getting me. There’s a lot I have to offer.”
Niang and Rivers, meanwhile, had never previously spoken aside from playful trash talk when Rivers’ teams played the Jazz. Now, Niang gives the Sixers a true backup power forward, a position they lacked last season and that was exploited in the playoffs whenever Tobias Harris subbed out.
Niang is a career 40.4% shooter from three-point range, including a 42.5% mark as primarily a catch-and-shoot player last season in Utah. With Ben Simmons holding out for the foreseeable future, Niang becomes the primary option to play small-ball center and he expects to guard multiple positions. He also hopes to get more playmaking opportunities than he had in Utah, where Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles carried the bulk of that responsibility.
“Doc’s given me the freedom to get the ball off the rebound,” Niang said, “and push and play-make and kick to guys like Furk [Furkan Korkmaz] or Shake [Milton] or throw lobs to Andre at the rim. That’s something that I’m really excited to continue to expand here.”
Through training camp’s first three practices, Drummond and Niang have been part of a second unit Rivers has called “phenomenal” in terms of defensive tenacity, ball movement, and overall energy.
Niang credits the easygoing natures of Thybulle, Milton, and Korkmaz with helping him and Drummond acclimate “quicker than I actually thought.” Milton, the backup point guard, has been running through pre-practice work with both players, breaking down various actions and learning where they prefer to receive the ball.
And Drummond and Niang have bounced ideas off each other. They want to make sure they capitalize on the vision Rivers laid out for them in those free-agency phone calls.
“Us Northeast guys have to stick together,” Niang said.