The departure of Jae Crowder in the Mike Conley trade will pave an exciting opportunity for Utah Jazz forward Georges Niang.
The Utah Jazz made big-time headlines on Wednesday by carrying out the biggest trade of the NBA offseason thus far outside of Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. Utah sent Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen and a pair of first-round picks to Memphis in exchange for a star point guard in Mike Conley.
By so doing, the Utah Jazz have filled a major void and now have an excellent Big 3 (dare I call it that?) in Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert as their foundation. And while that trio will command the majority of the focus and there are several intriguing story lines involving Conley’s fit with the Jazz (which should be superb), the impact of this trade obviously goes beyond just Conley and Utah’s existing star duo.
In fact, today I want to focus on a Jazz role player who may be one of the most significantly impacted by this trade. The guy I’m referring to might surprise you, but I’m thinking of Georges Niang.
Yes, Conley and Niang play entirely different positions, so you may be wondering what the two have to do with one another. But this isn’t so much about the Jazz bringing Conley in, but rather who they’re sending out – their former trusty backup four and stretch-big option Jae Crowder.
Crowder was typically Utah’s best player off the bench, and while he wasn’t necessarily a knock-down 3-point shooter at just 33.1 percent last season, he was enough of a threat from beyond the arc that he could command the opposing team’s attention and help space the floor. The Jazz frequently fared quite well when Jae was on the court with the rest of Utah’s starters in place of Favors.
However, he had his down sides as well. Oftentimes he’d be a bit too trigger happy as he hoisted 6.5 threes per game, the second most on the team, despite being less than efficient. Part of this was by design as he was asked to fill a stretch need for the Jazz, but part was also at times questionable decision making.
That said, Jae filled an important role for the team and certainly was an impactful player off the bench that made the Jazz better. He actually averaged more minutes per game than his starting counterpart Derrick Favors (27.1 compared to 23.2) and was a constant contributor.
In other words, his absence is going to create an extremely tough void to fill. And to do so, it’s likely that the Jazz will have to rely on a next-man-up mentality that will begin with none other than Georges Niang.
Despite only averaging 8.8 minutes per game last season, Niang had some really great moments for the Jazz. Above them all is likely the fact that he shot an astounding 41 percent from deep on nearly two attempts per game in 59 contests. There was some concern about whether his dominance in the G-League could really translate back over at an NBA level, but he largely put those doubts to rest by maintaining his solid 3-point stroke.
On top of that, Niang earned the trust of Quin Snyder and the faith of the front office by being an unyielding worker, an unrelenting hustler and a smart decision maker on the floor. Those aspects were rewarded in the latter half of the season as he saw his minutes per game go up to 12.0 after the All-Star break.
And although Niang’s efficiency took an unfortunate dip in the postseason (as did that of all his teammates ironically), he still was a positive in his minutes played and did a good job of spacing the floor for the Jazz.
In wake of Crowder’s absence, the Jazz will need a lot more of that from him next season if he’s to further prove his worth and evolve into an impact player for the Jazz. But the fact that the Jazz were willing to trade Crowder away, even to get Conley, still shows that the organization has a lot of trust in Niang and how he can continue to grow.
Although his opportunities were limited last year, I’d say overall his signing was an overwhelming success as he overachieved many expectations. Add another offseason of work under his belt and consider how shallow the Jazz are in the frontcourt now with Crowder gone and Ekpe Udoh likely out, and I think we’ll see a significant uptick in playing time and responsibility for Georges.
Does that mean he’ll match Crowder’s 27 minutes per game? Probably not, but it’s certainly possible. The Jazz were at their best with additional long-range threats on the floor, and after losing Crowder and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, they’ll need more guys out there that can fill that need. Knocking down 41 percent of his perimeter shots last year has certainly earned Niang respect as a deep-ball extraordinaire and if he continues to improve on that front, he could be an epic role player for the Jazz.
Sure, it’s also possible that Utah uses their Room exception to add a veteran free agent to play the backup four spot that could eat some or most of Niang’s minutes. But there’s no guaranteeing that they’ll get a quality player for just $4.8 million, so even if it is spent on a power forward, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it be a battle between the newcomer and Niang.
Niang oftentimes beat out Thabo Sefolosha for playing time in certain circumstances, so don’t be surprised if he continues his ascent and firmly solidifies himself in Utah’s 10-man rotation. Doing so would be a phenomenal feat for him and further proof that he was yet another unbelievable diamond in the rough signing.
But to do so, there’s definitely ways in which Georges is going to have to improve. First and foremost is on defense. The hustle and IQ are certainly there, but sometimes his execution has not been. Part of this has to do with him being somewhat undersized for his position and less athletic than other opponents, but as he takes the Joe Ingles approach and maximizes the skills he does have and works on his lateral movement, I could see him becoming yet another underrated defender in Utah’s scheme.
Outside of that, his turnover rate was a little higher than you’d like to see so he’s got to get better at moving the ball effectively (though his passing in and of itself is quite good), and while his 41 percent deep-ball shooting was awesome, it’d be great if he could eliminate some streakiness. In individual games, sometimes we’d see Niang drain big shots, then follow those up with a wildly off miss.
Over the course of the season, his perimeter percentages were somewhat of a seesaw as he went 57.1 percent in October, then down to 22.2 percent in November, back up to 54.5 percent in December, down to 31.8 percent in January, then up to 66.7 percent in February before leveling off at a good rate to close the year. Basketball is a game of runs, a game of highs and lows. But peaks and valleys like that can certainly be frustrating when a player is fighting for rotation minutes.
If Niang is to reach his full potential this upcoming season and become a reliable backup four similar to what Crowder was a year ago, he’ll need to cut out some of that inconsistency.
Let me conclude by saying that I don’t think we’ll see Niang instantly and easily replace Crowder’s production. The Jazz may utilize a newcomer to fill that role, or we may get to see more Derrick Favors than we’ve been used to, especially if he and Rudy Gobert find themselves co-existing better than ever before with a new point guard in Mike Conley.
Nevertheless, with Jae out of the picture, Georges Niang will be forced to shoulder a larger load just by the nature of the situation. He proved last season that he has the readiness to step up when called upon. He’ll have to do so in a much bigger way this time around.
His ability to do so may very well determine the effectiveness of the Mike Conley trade and the success that Utah’s second unit, and perhaps the team as a whole, has in 2019-20. That’s a big mantle for Georges to carry. But the Jazz front office clearly believes in his ability to take things up a notch and I do as well.
I’m excited to see what lies ahead for him in the biggest opportunity of his NBA career.