How Georges Niang uses manipulation to sneakily become a more dangerous weapon for the Sixers

Georges Niang drives to the rim for a shot against the Bucks; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

Georges Niang wants to be a weapon for the Sixers more than anything. But, he’s cognizant of the difference between doing his job and ripping off ill-advised shots.

“Shooting contested threes is tough for anybody,” Niang told The Painted Lines on Saturday evening.

“Obviously, I know when I feel comfortable making them. But, if I can get the defense in rotation, who’s to say that I don’t drive and kick and get the ball back on the backside?”

It’s about understanding how the defense perceives Niang, a veteran forward known all for his prowess as a three-point shooter and none for intangible gifts, and using that to his advantage.

“It’s been opening up lanes for me to get to the rim where guys are expecting me to pass and I can make layups, which I’ve been doing my whole life,” he says.

According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data on NBA.com, Niang is seeing and acting on those driving lanes nearly as well as he ever has:

Season Drives per game Total drives Field goal percentage
2018-19 1.8 108 63.6
2019-20 1.5 102 52.5
2020-21 2 142 47.9
2021-22 3 229 49.5
2022-23 2.5 205 (projection over 82-game regular season) 70.6

It hasn’t been a linear upward trend for Niang. But, he saw a career high in drives last season, his first with the Sixers. He projects to land a bit short of last season’s high, although still eclipsing the 200-drive threshold.

“It’s something that I watch film with our guys and coaches that I work with outside here. We really honed in on where are my opportunities to drive and make layups and where to drive and kick and when I can get shot-fake threes up,” Niang says.

“My main focus, obviously, is to shoot as many threes as I can. But, when the defense takes that away, I got to be able to do something else.”

The early returns in this 2022-23 campaign have been very positive, Niang making 70.6 percent of his shots out of the drive; a career-best, by far.

The confidence in his driving game has led Niang to a more balanced shot diet, too.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Niang’s shot selection is as efficient as it’s ever been. His midrange shots as a percentage of total field goal attempts are in the single digits for the first time in his career. 75 percent of his attempts are threes. 16 percent of his attempts are at the rim — tied for the second-highest rate of his career.

The better balance in his shot diet is rooted in his threat as a sniper. Niang wants to keep defenders in his way off balance by testing how eager they are to play him as a shooter.

“I think it’s a big manipulation thing, you know? I’m gonna manipulate the defense into thinking that I want to shoot,” Niang says.

Niang’s shooting prowess lifts Precious Achiuwa up to offer a contest upon the curl. But when Niang doesn’t shoot immediately, Achiuwa lets his guard down, assuming the forward has no choice but to swing the ball to a teammate. Achiuwa’s suddenly lax defensive stance empowers Niang to put the ball on the deck for a drive. Niang, despite his intangible disadvantages in a matchup against Achiuwa, wins the foot race for a score at the rim.

“If I can drive, great. If they think I’m gonna drive, then I’ll be able to get my hands free and shoot. So, you just want to make them guess.”

Niang knows he doesn’t have the physical tools to be the favorite in most individual matchups. But, that doesn’t discourage him from sharpening his body so that he can take advantage when opportunities strike.

“I’ve been really trying to hone in on that my whole career. Every year, I want to try and get better,” Niang says of his efforts to improve his athleticism. “But obviously, working with the guys that I work with to get my knee better and just be more agile on my feet. I think that’s something that I’ve really focused on this offseason.”

Being agile makes playing off of a dynamic big man in Joel Embiid all the easier, helping Niang’s driving game, in turn.

Niang used that agility to attack a late close-out on a pass from Embiid to give the Sixers the lead late in Philadelphia’s victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday.

“Obviously, Joel had it going and they were crowding him. And I saw that Joel had to act like he wasn’t going to shoot and passed it to me,” Niang says of what triggered him to drive. “And I saw Bobby Portis just turning and sprinting just to try to get out ahead and was out of control. That’s when I decided to drive it. And then I got into his body and got the foul.”

Length, athleticism, none of those physical tools phase Niang. Why worry about something he can’t really control?

He wins his battles playing the game above the shoulders.

“I really don’t look at it like that,” Niang says of how he beats defenders who are longer and more athletic than he is to the basket.

“I want to play the mental game with them, making them think that I’m going to shoot and have them get off balance and take advantage of that by getting my bigger body into them or using their momentum against them. Obviously, you recognize if guys are long and athletic and you want to use that against them rather than let them play off you and use it to their advantage.”

The outside shot feeds the drive, and Niang is shooting 43 percent on threes through 16 games this season. That’s an efficiency that defenses have to respect.

So, while the Minivan may never move like a Porsche, he’s going to keep driving.

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