Gorgeous Georges? Iowa State’s Niang will look a lot different this season

Next time you see him, Iowa State forward Georges Niang will look a little different than he did here last March.

Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

AMES, Iowa – Georges Niang is sitting at a high-top table in the players lounge at the Iowa State practice facility. He is laughing. He is smiling. The versatile junior forward, perhaps college basketball’s biggest matchup nightmare, is talking about how his foot, injured in the NCAA tournament, now feels perfect entering into the new season.

And some breaking news: Right now, he is wearing a shirt.

“Why isn’t he walking around with his shirt off?” head coach Fred Hoiberg shouted from across the room as he grabbed a Gatorade. “He does that a lot these days.”

Niang patted his gut, a gut that is no longer there.

“I was feeling a little bloated this morning,” he said with a smirk.

The up-and-down girth of a college student typically isn’t much of a story. It’s the Freshman 15: Everyone gets it, right? You drink some beer, you eat too much at the cafeteria buffet, you learn your metabolism is getting a bit slower. No big deal.

Niang’s case, though, is different.

A year ago I was calling Niang the best YMCA player in big-time college basketball. It was the combination of that less-than-buff body along with his unique game, where he’d score as easily from 3-point land as from some sort of funky, swooping Euro-move under the basket, where he’d be the guy who can bring the ball up the court as easily as he could play with his back to the basket.

Now the dude has been transformed, and this season we’ll get to see what that means for Iowa State basketball, one of the fastest-rising programs in the nation the past several years.

In one short offseason, Niang’s changed from doughy to cut. From 240 pounds to 210. From a diet that looked like this — pancakes and a waffle for breakfast, a couple quesadillas for lunch, chicken fingers and fries for dinner — to this: a house stocked with spinach and grilled chicken, fresh fruit and vegetables and only whole-grain bread. Even that whole-grain bread is a rare treat.

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“Bread is the dagger,” Niang told me. “I try to stay away from bread. Whole grain here and there, but bread doesn’t help me out too much.”

It’s a body transformation that seems fit for the cover of a grocery-store tabloid: “Niang Nutrition: How Georges Got Gorgeous in Just Three Months!”

The last you heard from Niang, he was on crutches after the Cyclones had won their first game of the NCAA tournament against North Carolina Central. He’d broken his foot and would be out for nearly two months. A short-handed Iowa State then squeaked by North Carolina before losing by six to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16.

Such was his importance to the Cyclones that, if Niang hadn’t broken his foot, I believe that 28-8 team was heading to the Final Four.

If Niang was able to average 16.7 points and 4.5 rebounds as a guy who wasn’t in great shape and who was the third head of Iowa State’s three-headed monster — along with seniors Melvin Ejim and Deandre Kane — I can only imagine what a lithe and athletic Niang will look like his junior season, when he becomes The Guy on another talented Iowa State team that’s ranked 14th in the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll (and 10th in my own rankings). He’ll be joined by all sorts of other diverse weapons — preternaturally reliable point guard Monte Morris, UNLV graduate transfer (and J.R. Smith-style scorer) Bryce Dejean-Jones, 6-foot-9 Marquette transfer Jameel McKay, and talented returners Dustin Hogue, Naz Long and Matt Thomas. As has become the Hoiberg trademark, the team will run, the team will shoot, the team will score — last season it was the sixth highest-scoring team in college hoops.

But make no mistake, even if Niang will tell you how Iowa State can play 10 or 11 deep, or how the Hoiberg system rewards the hot hand, this team’s success will rise or fall on Niang’s progress.

Expect that same inside-out, European style, with that same great footwork and passing — but now with much-improved athleticism, better stamina, more junkyard-dog in his rebounding, which is the part of his game he needs to work on most.

“It’s improved my game tremendously,” Niang said of his weight loss. “I feel a lot lighter, a lot less pressure on my knees, so I feel a lot better moving around.”

“When I was out of shape, I’d feel like I’d take rebounding as a break, maybe let someone else take the rebound. I have to attack and go after it. Every possession.”

If his game is as transformed as his body, it’ll be because of this enormous offseason effort. It wasn’t just food. It was a workout regimen that Niang told me bordered on obsessive. Hoiberg had taken Niang aside before final exams last May and told Niang his next step — the step toward becoming not just a good but a great college player, the step toward becoming a pro — was to fine-tune his body. He took it to heart. All summer he was in the gym three or four times a day. Shooting and ballhandling in the morning, putting up hundreds of shots at night. In between, weightlifting and running on the treadmill. People thought he was pushing a bit too hard coming off the injury. He didn’t care.

And now here he is, sitting in the players lounge, 30 pounds lighter than just a few months before. What used to be an underdog of a player in what used to be an underdog of a program is now far from underdog status. Niang is talking about his transformation, but he’s also looking over his shoulder at his teammates, who are playing pickup on the practice court. He’s itching to get out there. More work. More reps.

Hoiberg walks by with his Gatorade and asks Niang what he had for lunch. Chicken salad, balsamic vinaigrette, carrots and corn.

“I like that corn stuff,” Hoiberg said. “You’re in Iowa now.”

Hoiberg walks out toward the practice court. I steal a few more minutes of Niang’s time, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to be in here. He’d rather be out there, on the court, working as hard as anyone in that brand-new frame.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.