Looking to bolster their standing in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz revamped their bench a little bit back in December. They added Jordan Clarkson in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and released Jeff Green who, to that point, hadn’t had quite the impact they’d imagined when the team signed him in the offseason.
Green’s release opened up playing time for other players on the roster, most notably Georges Niang, who has seen an increase in his minutes since then. During the first few months of the season, Niang was averaging around 11.7 minutes per game and had a couple of DNP’s under his belt.
Since Christmas Eve though, when the Jazz cut Green, Niang has emerged as a mainstay in the rotation. He’s seen his playing time increase to around 16-17 minutes per game and his on-court production has gone up. For role players looking to carve out a niche in the league, opportunity is everything for them and Niang knows that well.
This is his fourth year in the NBA, but his first season actually playing a meaningful role in a team’s rotation. He was originally drafted by the Indiana Pacers with the 50th pick in the 2016 draft, but he only suited up in 23 games and spent most of his team with their G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Despite having a solid summer league and good G League showing, the Pacers decided to part ways with him and cut him at the end of his rookie season. Indiana was a veteran group looking to make noise in the playoffs, a difficult situation for a rookie to land in.
“It was a tough situation, going to a veteran team and trying to earn minutes. That isn’t easy. They had different plans for me when the season ended, but it worked out good for both groups. I don’t have any bad blood towards them,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, sometimes you wish things would’ve been a little more patient, but what are you going to do? It’s worked out good for both sides. You can’t dwell on things that have happened in the past.”
Niang ended up signing with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2017, but they cut him in the preseason, and he ultimately joined the Santa Cruz Warriors, their G League affiliate. He spent a few months in Santa Cruz before the Jazz came calling. Utah had an open two-way roster spot after releasing Naz Mitrou-Long, and they signed Niang to fill that vacancy.
He spent most of the second half of the 2017-18 season with the Jazz’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars. He only saw playing time in nine games with the Jazz that season and continued to work on his game in the G League. In 15 games with Salt Lake that year, he put up 22 points per game while shooting 60.8 percent from the field and 52.7 percent from the three-point line.
The Jazz ended up converting his two-way to a standard NBA contract in the 2018 offseason. This time around, he spent most of his time with the Jazz and only appeared in three games with Salt Lake City. While he did see minutes in 59 games last season, he wasn’t quite able to crack the Jazz rotation. With things a little different now, Niang gives plenty of credit to the G League for helping him develop.
“One hundred percent it helped me. When you get to go out there and play against live talent, behind NBA lines with NBA rules and work on your craft, it’s good. I would say that my time with the Salt Lake City Stars was pivotal to my development,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “I’m thankful for that. It taught me a lot, gave me minutes to develop, get into a routine and learn how to be a professional. I feel I owe a lot to the G League because that’s why I am where I am today.”
Green’s release opened up a spot in Utah’s lineup for a versatile forward who can space the floor and knock down open shots. Niang was given a crack at it, and he hasn’t looked back. Although he’s had a little bit of a shooting slump recently, he was excelling as a stretch four. In the 13 games after Green’s departure, he was putting up 8.1 points per game while shooting 46.6 percent from three-point range.
On the season he’s averaging a modest 5.8 points per game, but he’s a threat to score on any given night. He’s taking almost five shots a game, a career-high, while converting on 42 percent of his three-point attempts, also a career-high. He’s helped make the Jazz bench that much more dangerous. He’s given them the production from the four-spot that they weren’t getting before.
“It’s been great. I can get out there and defend multiple positions and make shots from behind the arc. That’s my role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “I get in there and bring us some energy off the bench, space the floor and create for others, and it’s been great. I’ve loved every second of it, I’m really enjoying it, getting regular minutes.”
Currently, the Jazz sit at 34-18 and fourth in the West. They’re a mere one-and-a-half games ahead of the Houston Rockets and two-and-a-half games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. The play of their bench, including Niang, could play a pivotal role in where they ultimately end up.
Niang has been enjoying his increased role in the past few months. He’s determined to keep his spot and continue to help Utah make a strong postseason push.
“I’m going to continue being able to make plays for others, shoot the ball well behind the arc and defend well at multiple positions,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “I want to continue to grow and become a better player and expand my role. Right now, I love my role and what I’m doing with it. Whatever I can do to help this team win, I’m going to go out and do that every night.”