AMES — As Georges Niang gazed at the hoop, his eyes widened.
The rugged metal ring seemed larger than life — larger than actual size, anyway — to the fascinated, if undersized five-year-old from Methuen, Mass.
“I thought it was 10 feet at that point, but it was actually seven feet,” Iowa State’s multi-talented sophomore forward said, remembering back. “My dad was dunking and I was amazed. I couldn’t even hit the rim then.”
Niang’s world — as well as his game — has since greatly expanded.
As one of the No. 16 Cyclones’ top players, Niang’s sights are now firmly set at 10 feet and above.
And his head-turning, spin move-filled rise from “rotund kid” to complete player with an “old man’s game” begins another important chapter at 11:30 a.m. Thursday when ISU (23-7) matches up with Kansas State (20-11) in a Big 12 Championship quarterfinal in Kansas City.
“Whenever you can play for a championship in March, you’re blessed to be in that situation,” Niang said.
Blessed is one way to put it.
The stories that exemplify Niang’s devotion to the game span from fourth grade to now, and include chasing a bike for offseason conditioning and beating the sunrise to get in the gym after a less-than-stellar performance in a home loss to league champion Kansas in January.
“My best story was when he played for BABC (Boston Amateur Basketball Club), a premier (AAU) program in Boston, he was in Florida two weeks and stayed at my house when he came home,” said Niang’s original AAU coach Rick Gorman, who’s still a close friend and mentor. “He heard me going up the driveway and he sprinted after my truck. I go, ‘What are you doing?’”
“‘I’ve got to get to the gym,’” Gorman recalled. “This was (after) two weeks on the national AAU circuit and he came to my gym to get up 500 shots at eight o’clock in the morning. I think that kind of tells who this kid is.”
That’s a tough Boston kid, Gorman added.
Niang was also, as a fourth-grader when Gorman first began working with him, very much an unfinished product.
“He was kind of a rotund kid,” Gorman said. “Played a lot of back to the basket.”
Not anymore — though Niang’s physique remains a work in progress.
But chiseled or not, his versatility makes him a threat to score from all over the floor and against almost anyone.
Niang averages 16.2 points per game and scored 22 before fouling out in Saturday’s 85-81 overtime win over Oklahoma State.
“It seems like everyone thinks they know what he's going to do but there’s no way to stop it,” said ISU’s Melvin Ejim, the Big 12’s player of the year. “And that’s what makes a good player great. He has that ability that even though you know what he's going to do — you might know exactly the spin move or exactly what move he’s going to do — but it’s hard to stop him because he's so talented at using his body and scoring the ball.”
Niang’s heads-up approach as an offensive conduit also maximizes his teammates’ scoring chances — whether cutting to the lane or settling in along the 3-point line.
“He’s as important a guy as we have out there as a playmaker,” Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Credit his footwork, which Gorman helped him develop.
Credit his spin moves and hook shots, which form part of that “old man’s game” that evinces nothing but pride from its owner.
“I love it,” Niang said recently. “If I can have an old man’s game and still give us buckets, what does that say about you? Your new man’s game’s not working out too well for you. So I’m fine with my old man’s game.”
It’s game, period.
Serious game that may lead to larger than life happenings and Kansas City and beyond.“He’s exceeded all my expectations,” Gorman said. “But he’s always had that hungry, humble attitude of, ‘You know what? Keep hating on me, because I’m going to prove you wrong.’”