By: Aaron Williams
Only in the legendary Drew League could a near-triple-double (41-11-9) from a 6′ point guard be so overlooked. Far from a slight on 21 year-old Sango Niang, the fact that he didn’t earn a Top Performer honor this week just goes to show how fiercely competitive this league truly is. “I just feel I had to play harder than usual. I wasn’t focused on getting that last assist, I was focused on getting the win,” he told DrewLeague.com after the game. Truth be told, after No Shnacks’ game on Sunday, it seemed as though Sango was a shoo-in for a Top Performance selection despite the fact that they lost – until C.A.B.C. forward Austin Daye blew everyone else away with a 52-point performance in a win, on only 26 shots no less. Yet, if the Drew selected the honor Mount Rushmore-style, No Shnacks’ diminutive floor general would have earned a spot in impressive fashion.
Coming to California from Paris, France to pursue his goal of playing professionally – both in Europe and in the NBA – Niang started his hoops journey in 8th grade. Being smaller and less experienced than other players, he had to fight for playing time in high school. “Freshman year (at Serrano High), I didn’t make the team; sophomore year (at Etiwanda) I didn’t make the team, junior year (At Summit High) I played JV, and senior year, I got no playing time,” he reminisces, “But I fell in love with the game. It wasn’t an process, but I’m here now.” It’s this “little dog/big fight” mentality that has distinguished Sango from the competition, taking him from riding the pine to being featured in Slam Magazine in 2014. After flying high at Chaffey Junior College, he caught the eye of DII Simon Fraser University’s head coach, James Blake. The university – located in Burnaby, BC – is the sole international affiliate of the NCAA, which may provide the sole explanation for why there isn’t more national buzz for the bouncy, lightning-quick basketball Napoleon. In 32.8 minutes a game in the most recent, he averaged 23 points a game, on 50% shooting (40% from three-point land), and dished 6 dimes along the way.
With that kind of resume, it’s no wonder he caught the eye of No Shnacks’ coach Gary Marcus at an open run last summer at only 19 years old. He scored 18 points in his first game, and rapidly became known as one of the top guards in the league. Coach Allen Caveness of the 2014 Drew League Champion Houdini’s All-Stars is counted among Niang’s fans, he considered recruiting the speed demon earlier this summer, as Sango’s game perfectly meshes with Houdini’s prefered, uptempo style of play. “That’s what makes the Drew League what it is,” raved Caveness, “A young college kid from a small school can come and drop a 40 piece!” By combining his athleticism with natural unselfishness, not only can Sango score like a machine, he also prides himself on making his teammates better. A highlight of his previous summer was when he dropped 26 while facing off against NBA MVP runner-up James Harden. Niang assertively drives the lane, and is totally unafraid to pull up for a remarkably deadly mid-range jumper that seems to come out of nowhere after his initial acceleration. Opponents seeking to confine him to the perimeter would be wise to reconsider, as he shows complete comfort from just about any spot on the arc – or several feet behind it.
“I would say leadership-wise, I got to work on leading the older guys,” Sango admits when pressed about his weaknesses. However, if that is his major weakness, then he needn’t worry about his development throughout his nascent career. Indeed, as one of the younger players in the league, he shows considerable composure with the game on the line. Not only is he willing to shoulder more of a burden of scoring in late game situations, very rarely have we seen him wilt in the clutch. In anything, Niang’s teammates could stand to do a little stepping up to help him out more. No Shnacks currently stands at number 8 in the the Keith Anderson division, having only won 3 of their 8 games so far. They can make the playoffs, but someone else has got to step up. When he read the last recap of their game against BB4L, Niang says, “We had to let everyone know who we are. We needed more intensity. We’re getting off to a lot of bad starts, but if we keep it close as we heat up we can close it out at the end.” The same could be said of their season so far. They appear to be in danger of missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, but if Sango Niang can take the helm, flanked by exciting new shooting guard Troy Leaf, and push his team to maintain their composure, they stand a reasonable chance to make some noise. Perhaps he can extend to them his own feelings about the game; he attributes his ability to stay centered during close games to his sense that: “it’s just fun. I’m at peace.”
Aaron Paul Williams is a hardcore hoops fanatic. His musings on basketball, beats, rhymes, and life can be found on Twitter @aaronsmarter.