SALT LAKE CITY — Each time Georges Niang checks into a game with Rudy Gobert, he gets some not-so-subtle reminders. As Niang trots out to the court, he often hears Gobert's voice stating the same thing: "Let's play defense, let's play defense."
That same voice can be heard when Niang cuts off an opponent's drive, too. "Yeah! Yeah!" Gobert will shout in an enthusiastic tone. And there's been plenty to cheer about when it comes to Niang.
No, this isn't another story about Gobert's defensive prowess; it's one about Niang's.
"It's been consistent for us: guys that defend find their way onto the floor and guys that don't defend, find their way off the floor," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.
There's no denying Niang's offensive input. In the last 32 games, he's shot 48.9% from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game. He's one of the best shooters in the game — and at 6-foot-8, closeouts don't seem to affect him much. While Niang's release has gotten quicker in his years in Utah, being an elite shooter is nothing new. In his first full season with the Jazz, in 2018-19, he shot 41% from 3; he followed that up with a 40% average last season.
The Jazz already knew he could light it up from outside, and that seemed to fit right in with what Snyder wanted to do this season. Yet, Niang only averaged 7.1 minutes in the first couple weeks of the season. It's almost like he had to prove he wasn't going to be a negative on the other end of the floor before he could join the offensive party. As the season enters the final stretch, he's done just that.
"There was a play (Wednesday) where he shifted and he overhelped, and the ball got kicked out to the wing and (Terence) Davis made a 3. And it hurt him because he knew that he could have drifted more," Snyder said. "That's a subtle thing. But for him to recognize that and to own that, I think is what's happened for him over time. He takes pride in it, and it's something that he has worked out. His habits have improved, and there's a focus and a resolve."
Niang is self-aware. In college, he went through a body transformation because he realized that "they don't pay fat people to play professional sports." He went from 260 pounds to 225 and became an All-American. In his first season with the Jazz, he jokingly referred to himself as the minivan because "he needed a few laps to warm up" after nearly missing a dunk.
A new nickname was born.
He takes pride in it, and it's something that he has worked out. His habits have improved, and there's a focus and a resolve.
–Jazz coach Quin Snyder on Georges Niang's defensive effort
Niang doesn't have any grand illusions of who he is as an athlete — that's proven to be a driving force for him throughout his career. Knowing and accepting a limitation can make it that much easier to overcome. He knew he wasn't the fastest guy, so he went to work to try and fix that as much as he could.
He knew to be truly an effective defender with the Jazz he needed to be able to stay in front of guys. While Utah isn't going to ask him to defend elite wing scorers regularly, he needed to be a solid enough team defender and keep players like Moe Harkless — as seen in Wednesday's game against the Kings — from blowing by him. So, Niang started a new program with the Jazz training staff to improve his lateral quickness.
"It's paid off, so it's been good," Niang said. "My feet have gotten quicker."
Since the All-Star break, the Jazz have had a 98.7 defensive rating with Niang on the court. To be clear, a lot of that is the fact he gets to play with Gobert quite often. But his improvements on that end shouldn't be lost just because Gobert is spectacular.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just keeping guys in front, doing a good job of forcing guys to areas where they don't shoot the ball as well, and getting more in-depth into scouting reports," Niang said. "Pushing guys to areas where they're not as comfortable shooting the ball and using my size — my length and my size — to make them shoot difficult shots. And it's paid off for me so far this year, so I'm just gonna keep chugging away and doing that."
If he does keep it up, it gives the Jazz an extremely solid rotation piece for the playoffs. Niang isn't shy about shooting and isn't afraid to mix it up inside for rebounds. Not through jumping — again, he knows his limits — but by putting a body on someone and boxing out.
To Snyder, it's no surprise that as Niang has focused on defending and rebounding, his offensive game has blossomed, too.
"If you define yourself solely by whether you make shots, you're not going to be consistent," Snyder said. "Those other things you can do every night. And when you do them every night, my belief is that you're not thinking and you're playing more free, and you're playing aggressive. That's what you're seeing Georges do.
"He's not playing defense because he's making shots. He's making shots because he's playing defense."