Senegal’s Thierno Niang stands out despite size

Thierno Niang

Thierno Niang during Senegal’s game against South Africa at AfroBasket 2017.

American and European basketball scouts don’t board airplanes for Dakar, or anywhere else in Africa, in hopes of finding the next great 6-footer. They can find that at home. They want “bigs.”

Thierno Niang discovered this on his local court in Pikine, a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar. It ended well for Niang, 27. He’s the starting point guard for Senegal’s national team, which finished third in the recent AfroBasket tournament. Niang, 6-foot-1, averaged 5.5 points and 3.5 assists per game. He played professionally in Spain last season and is now a free agent. He hopes to return to Europe this season.

I interviewed Niang a few months ago about the challenges shorter players face in Africa. He described how Spanish coaches would come to Pikine and run clinics.

What was your experience at these clinics?
“They don’t even talk to you. Because of your size, you’re not even part of the plan. They’re looking for 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9, 7-footers. If you’re not on that level, really, you don’t have a shot. You’re just enjoying the moment, the experience. But really, you know you’re not going to be part of it.”

How did you react?
“You use it as motivation. Every time you step on the court, you’ve got to play like it’s your last game. As a guard, I had to work twice as hard as the big guys for me to even get noticed.”

At that point, Niang was a teenager playing at Pikine Basket Club. He eventually earned an invitation to SEED Academy (2008-09), which educates and trains promising young players _ usually tall ones _ and helps find them scholarships to U.S. colleges.

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A makeshift scoreboard on a wall at the Pikine basketball court. (K. Maguire photo)

After junior college, Niang played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

How was your experience at SEED?
“The most important thing about being at SEED is learning about responsibility. If you don’t study, you don’t play basketball. A lot of us didn’t have that idea before we got there. Besides that… they built that self-confidence in me, to believe that anything can happen as long as you put the work in. They’re the ones who brought the best out in me. Mentally, they really did that for me.”

What are the obstacles for African players?
“If (kids) would have been introduced to the game earlier in their lives, and been able to have all the equipment they need to be a better player, it would be a way different story than right now.

“All the basketball IQ things, all the little things you have to learn when you’re young, to develop a natural instinct. In Senegal, a lot of times they just teach us _ how to dribble the ball, how to shoot the ball _ but actually you don’t have the chance to learn how to play the game.

“If you don’t really know the game, it doesn’t matter how good you are. If they put you into a situation where they play systems, it’s going to be tough for you. A lot of us had that. You could say that’s the biggest problem for us. We were taught basketball, but not how to play the game.”

When did you start playing?
“My mom lives in New York (Harlem). I used to go visit her. Back in 2002, I went there and one of my big brothers was playing basketball. We’d go to the park every afternoon and play ball. Before that, I was playing soccer. Following him and going to the park, I fell in love with the game. It was just natural to me. After that summer, the minute I came back to Senegal I started playing basketball.”

Any hope for the smaller guys?
“It’s definitely going to change. When I went to the States (for school), I was 19 years old. I had a small window. Nowadays, we have guys going to the States at the age of 15. The opportunity wasn’t there when I was coming up as it is now. A lot of boys are in high school right now. They can really do something special in the future.”

Niang shot 58 percent from the field during Senegal’s run in the 2017 AfroBasket. He was 3 of 8 on 3-point attempts.

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