AMES (AP) — Iowa State forward Georges Niang isn’t very athletic. He just isn’t.
Yet the 6-foot-7 Niang has blossomed into one of the Big 12’s better freshmen, helping the Cyclones get off to a good start this season. Niang is third on Iowa State in scoring at 11.5 points per game while hitting 52.5 percent of his shots. He was named the Big 12’s Rookie of the Week on Monday after averaging 15.5 points per game in a loss to Kansas and a win over Texas last week.
Niang and the Cyclones (11-4, 1-1 Big 12) host West Virginia (8-7, 1-2) on Wednesday in search of their second straight Big 12 victory.
“It’s going to be difficult for any 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10 slow guy to hold Georges because he can shoot the ball from the outside,” said Will Clyburn, Iowa State’s leading scorer. “You can see in the games that the bigger players are having trouble guarding him and the smaller players are having trouble guarding him the same way.”
Niang grew up in Methuen, Mass., and played his prep ball at the Tilton School. Most of the attention went to teammate Nerlens Noel, perhaps the top recruit in the class of 2012 and now a starter at Kentucky.
While Noel’s athleticism made him the target of every coach in America, Niang’s overall versatility made him perhaps the most valuable player on his team.
Niang shattered the school record with 2,372 points, averaging 24.2 per game as a junior and 25.1 as a senior. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was blown away by the fact that Niang could carry such a heavy burden on a team that also featured the nation’s No. 1 prospect.
Though his recruitment didn’t match the frenzy surrounding Noel, Niang was a consensus top 100 recruit who ultimately chose the Cyclones over offers from the likes of Iowa, Providence, Texas A&M and Seton Hall.
“I think being a student of the game, always looking to get better has helped me as a player,” Niang said.
Iowa State coaches have been thrilled with Niang from the moment he arrived on campus. They view him as a major building block as Hoiberg transitions from a transfer-filled roster to one anchored by four-year players like Niang.
Niang’s strength and conditioning aren’t where they need to be just yet. But Niang’s size and skills have made him too valuable for the Cyclones to keep him stashed away on the bench.
“He still has work to do on his body. I think he’d be the first person to tell you that. But his basketball IQ makes up for a lot of that. His craftiness around the basket, his ability to finish is unbelievable. His footwork as good as I’ve ever seen for a player that age,” Hoiberg said.
Niang opened the season with double-digit scoring outings in each of his first four games. But the reality of how tough college ball was going to be first sunk in for Niang at a tournament in Las Vegas in late November, where he was rendered ineffective in losses to Cincinnati and UNLV.
Niang bounced back quickly, though, emerging as Iowa State’s top post player off the bench.
By the time Big 12 play came around, Hoiberg was ready to give the inexperienced Niang a chance to start at the league’s most hostile environment, Kansas.
Hoiberg wanted to neutralize Kansas star Jeff Withey’s ability to block shots by using Niang to draw him more toward the perimeter. Niang responded with eight straight points to start the game, and Iowa State almost pulled off the upset.
Hoiberg kept Niang in the starting lineup on Saturday against Texas. Niang rewarded his coach with a career-high 18 points.
“He’s not real flashy. He just goes out and plays efficient basketball,” Hoiberg said. “He’s just a smart basketball player. We’re definitely better when he’s on the court.”
The emergence of Niang and sophomore center Percy Gibson has helped the Cyclones overcome what many perceived as a lack of depth in the post.
Niang is doing all he can to beef up in hopes of being even more of a presence in the paint. But he’s already shown more than enough skill to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates.
“The more fit I become, I can be more versatile. The more versatile you are, the more minutes you can play. If you can run forever, you can play forever,” Niang said.