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From ‘minivan’ to ‘sprinter’: Georges Niang proving to be a perfect fit for the Sixers and Philly

Niang on Tuesday night returned to Utah, where he turned a two-way contract into a four-year stint with the Jazz before signing with Philly as a free agent.

The Sixers' Georges Niang celebrating his three-point basket against the Knicks on Nov. 8.
The Sixers' Georges Niang celebrating his three-point basket against the Knicks on Nov. 8.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

SALT LAKE CITY — After the 76ers played the Utah Jazz just before last season’s All-Star break, Doc Rivers called Daryl Morey.

“Hey, Georges Niang is available,” the Sixers coach told the team’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve got to get this guy.”

The Jazz ultimately did not want to part ways with the power forward at the 2021 trade deadline, Rivers said. But then Rivers called Niang directly at the start of free agency to explain how he could play an expanded role in Philly’s system, a conversation that Niang says sold him on becoming a Sixer.

So far, the pairing has been an excellent fit.

Coming out of his return to Utah for Tuesday’s Sixers-Jazz matchup, Niang is putting up the best numbers of his NBA career (11.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 24 minutes per game) while flashing the versatility to shoot from deep, put the ball on the floor and play multiple frontcourt positions.

» READ MORE: Utah stands head and shoulders over Sixers, handing them their fifth straight loss

Niang has endeared himself to Sixers fans by complementing his on-court production with fiery reactions to big moments, and to teammates and coaches who know they can playfully treat Niang “like a piñata,” Rivers said, by giving him a hard time or becoming outwardly gleeful when he actually elevates high enough to dunk the basketball.

The 28-year-old Niang is aware of his strengths and limitations as an NBA player. And if Niang’s four-year stint with the Jazz was chapter one of his story of capitalizing on his chance to stick in the league, as he said Tuesday morning, he is now furthering the plot by showcasing a wider array of skills with the Sixers.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Niang said. “I don’t want to come off as arrogant. … Doc does a great job of putting me in positions to excel, so it’s been real easy for me to come in and maximize on the opportunities that I’ve been given.”

Independently, Rivers and Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid both recently said with a chuckle that they used to think that Niang was not any good.

Niang has had a more unorthodox path to sustaining his NBA career. After a four-year, All-America career as primarily a low-post player at Iowa State, the 6-foot-7 Niang was a 2016 second-round draft pick by Indiana, spent most of his rookie season in the G League, and was waived that ensuing summer. He was with Golden State’s G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, in 2017 when the Jazz offered him a two-way contract, a new type of deal implemented that season that allowed young players to spend 45 calendar days with the NBA team and the rest of the season in the G League.

It was the first time Niang felt “valued” by an NBA organization. With the Salt Lake City Stars, Niang worked on being a better facilitator and reading the defense before the ball arrived so he could get his shot off quicker. Jazz coach Quin Snyder also appreciated how much pride he took in improving defensively.

“He’s fought to get to where he is through a number of situations,” said Snyder, whose normally stoic face cracked a grin at the mention of Niang’s name. “I think, as a result of that, he knows the best ways for him to play to be efficient.”

The next summer, Utah offered Niang a standard contract. He became a dangerous long-range shooter for one of the NBA’s top offenses over the next three seasons, culminating with him connecting on 42.5% on 4.1 attempts in 16 minutes per game last season.

He also brought a self-deprecating personality to the Jazz, calling himself the minivan to Donovan Mitchell’s Ferrari. That nickname took off so much with Jazz fans that it is now draped across T-shirts on Niang’s website.

“One of my strongest qualities is being able to laugh at myself,” Niang said. “… The way to grow is to be able to look at what you’ve done and where you failed and humble yourself, and continue to work at the things that you’re not good at and slowly try to improve 1% every day. Being able to laugh at yourself and realize you make mistakes and you’re not perfect is the easiest way to do that.”

Receiving a call from Rivers when Niang became a free agent was a thrill for a Massachusetts native who grew up watching Rivers’ Celtics teams. And entering the season, Rivers called Niang the Sixers’ “silent” pickup.

Philly lacked depth at power forward last season whenever star Tobias Harris came off the floor. Niang’s eyes brightened during the preseason whenever he talked about playing with Embiid, who draws so much attention down low and opens things up for outside shooters. Rivers initially envisioned lineups with Niang at power forward, Harris at small forward, and Ben Simmons as the small-ball center.

Instead, Niang has been a bedrock for a Sixers team that has been shorthanded for much of the season due to injuries, health and safety protocols, and Simmons’ absence.

Niang has played heavy minutes off the bench, bringing a presence to the second unit that is steadying and galvanizing. In addition to stretching the floor, Niang can ignite the offense by bringing the ball up off a rebound and is constantly moving his body to set picks and find openings. Rivers has been pleasantly surprised with how Niang can “pry his body downhill” on dribble attacks, make passes in the post, and absorb contact for tough finishes.

“If you grow up in the Northeast, I feel like that’s the only way you can survive,” Niang said. “Get knocked down nine [times], stand up 10 times. That’s just kind of the mentality I’ve played with my whole career.”

Niang scored in double figures in six consecutive games earlier this month, drawing “M-V-P!” chants from the Wells Fargo Center crowd when hit a season-high 21 points (and added five assists and five rebounds) against Portland on Nov. 1 before matching that total eight days later against Milwaukee.

Throughout that stretch, he also demonstrated how he constantly plays off “pure emotion” that rubs off on teammates and fans.

He pounded his hand to the side of his head three times after burying a big shot from beyond the arc against the Trail Blazers, then flexed and banged his chest after two separate and-one conversions. He was the first teammate to rush teammate Seth Curry after he hit the game-clinching jumper against Chicago on Nov. 3 because he wanted to “embrace that and let [Curry] know he was a bad dude.” He waved his arms to encourage a roaring home crowd after connecting on a go-ahead fourth-quarter layup against the Bucks.

“He plays with so much energy [and] brings so much joy to us on and off the court,” Embiid said.

Added Rivers: “There’s guys that bring clouds and there’s guys that bring sunshine. He’s a sunshine guy, for sure.”

Yet perhaps a Nov. 4 game at Detroit best epitomizes the full scope of Niang.

A man wearing a bright green shirt and backward hat sitting behind the scorer’s table constantly heckled Niang throughout the night, saying, “What’s he gonna do?” when he checked into the game. In the fourth quarter, Niang scored nine points on 3-of-5 shooting while adding three rebounds and one steal to help the Sixers pull away to the victory — after he was a prominent motivator in the huddle at the end of the previous period.

“He felt like, in that end of the quarter, they were physically beating us,” Rivers said after that game. “He voiced that, and he came out and led.”

Sitting inside an empty Vivint Arena before Tuesday’s shootaround, Niang said he never thought he would walk into that gym as a Utah opponent. An extra day in Salt Lake City allowed him to visit owner Randall Curtis at Harbor Seafood and Steak Co., his go-to spot when he lived in town, and reminisce about his time with the Jazz before totaling seven points, three rebounds and two steals in Tuesday’s game.

He received a big ovation from the Utah crowd when he first entered the game in the first quarter, and promptly drained a three-pointer from the right wing on his first touch. As halftime wound down, he fist-bumped a fan sitting courtside near the Sixers bench. Coming out of second-half timeouts, he bantered with teammates-turned-friends Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. He waved to the crowd after a tribute video played on the Jumbotron, which included plenty of clips of that outward fervor he has already flashed in Philly and a slew of minivan references.

Niang’s Sixers teammates, however, have decided it’s already time for a nickname revamp.

Following his breakout performance against Portland, reserve center Andre Drummond (a Connecticut native) smoothly dropped in that he has “watched the minivan move his whole life” while he and Niang played AAU ball in New England.

Then, Drummond corrected himself.

“I lied,” he said. “We upgraded him to a Sprinter now.”