As part of a healthy breakfast, Georges Niang usually guzzles a smoothie. It is just one element of the Iowa State forward's plan to improve his diet and transform his body, though discovering a decent recipe required effort. After some taste-bud trial and terror, Niang conjured a go-to mixture: Kale, carrots, mangoes, a little bit of mango juice and tomatoes.
That one he recommends. Others he recommends only to hated enemies.
“I've had my fair share of crappy smoothies and my fair share of good ones,” Niang says. “It's hit or miss. You just buy a whole bunch of stuff and you say, 'This looks good,' and throw it in there. If it tastes good, you remember it. If it doesn't, you remember to never try it again.”
Identifying what not to do and then adjusting daily habits: It’s been Niang's comprehensive strategy this summer as he strives to become an All-America-caliber force this winter. He changed courses in the weight room, moving to high-intensity workouts aimed at burning calories and increasing lean muscle tissue. He changed courses on the table, overhauling his nutrition plan and eating patterns for every meal. And the 6-foot-8 junior certainly changed as a result, dropping about 25 pounds, halving his body fat and producing a striking before-and-after picture that made the rounds on social media in July.
That visual juxtaposition makes it clear Niang won't be called soft anymore. He's all angles and well-defined edges now, citing the broken foot suffered during the NCAA tournament as a pivot point for his career trajectory. He averaged 16.7 points as a sophomore, third-best on the team. Iowa State ran its potent offense through him more than anyone; Niang's usage rate of 28.5 percent led all rotation players. But the injury jolted him and counsel from Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg provided food for thought: If Niang had NBA aspirations, Hoiberg said, he needed to look the part.
“I just wanted to be healthy and get to the point where I felt people weren't saying my body wasn't the only thing holding me back,” Niang says. “They'd say I was efficient, but they didn't know if I could do it at the next level because of my body. I just wanted to show them at this point that I am serious.”
In April, Niang's body fat registered in the mid-teens, per Andrew Moser, Iowa State's director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports, who works with the men's basketball team. Niang was up to 256 pounds. He was out of wind quicker than he wanted to be. The broken foot prompted a conversation with Moser about remaking his image. “Some of the commentary every once in a while about him not being the most athletic guy, that his body doesn't look like other guys he's playing against that have 5-6 percent body fat, I think that was part of the drive, too,” Moser says.
The injury limited how much gym work he could do in April and May, so Niang first attacked his eating and sleeping habits. Moser believes that college basketball players are “the worst athletes with their diets, and Niang was no exception. He ate whatever was before him: Pizza, calzones, chicken fingers. He'd sleep in until 9 or 10 a.m. and eat only a small breakfast, like a couple protein bars and eggs. He'd work out, then maybe eat a grilled chicken sub or a calzone for a late lunch. If he snacked, he snacked on popcorn. Whatever dinner was, Niang says, he'd have a couple too many servings of it. He'd stay up beyond midnight regularly and face the temptation of greasy late-night fare.
Now? The breakfast table is a fueling station: Protein shakes, fruit, eggs, a smoothie. After a morning weight-room workout, lunch might be a grilled chicken salad with whole wheat bread on the side for carbs. After an on-court afternoon session, dinner is a protein like steak or chicken and vegetables, maybe asparagus or carrots or broccoli, around 5 p.m. “Just being real clean with what I'm eating,” Niang says. “It was a shock to my body at first. I couldn't stand doing it.”
He has gone from lemonade to water with lemon. He satisfies his snack cravings with another helping of broccoli. And there aren't many of those late-night hankerings anymore: He's in bed around 10 or 11 and up at 8.
“I feel like I live more like a human being,” Niang says.
The exercise of eating with teammates, though, might be as challenging as what a strength coach whips up in the weight room. The rest of the Cyclones' menus haven't changed much, thanks to metabolisms that don't demand it. “He's around a group of guys that realistically can eat whatever they want and burn it off in a second,” Moser says. “Georges' body doesn't respond that way. He's with Naz Long, Monte Morris and those guys, they can eat fast food and wings and pizza. And he's got to sit there and watch them.”
Niang says he's used to it now. He knows what to put into his body because he knows how his body works.
In June, he was foot was fully healed, and he has been in the weight room four times a week, like other Iowa State players. He's doing contrast training, pairing weight training with plyometric drills or jumps: If he's doing squats and lunges, he's also doing a box jump or a depth jump, some sort of explosive movement. If he's doing a bench press, he's maybe also doing a clap push-up and a medicine ball chest pass to a trainer.
His rest time, however, plunged while his intensity and volume accelerated. If a group of teammates tasked with building muscle mass are doing three movements – say a hamstring exercise, plus a band walk and some hip adduction – they're doing one set of one movement, resting for two minutes, and then moving on to the next set.
Niang, meanwhile, does a “giant set.” All three movements together at a more moderate weight, four sets of 10 reps with zero rest until the entire sequence is complete. “I wouldn't say it's a major change,” Niang says, “but whenever something is high-intensity, it's never easy.”
The objective – burn calories, get stronger, still be explosive – has been met. Niang's body fat is less than 10 percent and he now weighs 230 pounds. And yet he remains one of the more powerful players on the roster; the last time Iowa State measured the players' 185-pound bench press, the NBA Combine's standard testing weight, Niang managed 15 reps. At the Combine, 10 or more is considered a good showing. “Every aspect of his game is going to be improved,” Moser says. “He's one of the strongest guys on our team, he knows how to use his body. He'll be able to do everything. Two hundred thirty pounds is still a big frame, and we've added muscle to that and more power and more strength to that. That's a great combination. That's exactly what we want.”
Niang wanted no limitations on the floor – not from the foot injury, not from any other part of his body. He says he feels lighter on his feet. He says there's less pressure on his knees. He says he's quicker.
“It's a lot easier moving around,” Niang says.
He was already a versatile cog for Iowa State's attack even before changing his habits and his body over the summer, averaging 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 2013-14 to go with those solid scoring numbers. Now that there's less of Georges Niang, he might be more dangerous. He trimmed off some heft so he can carry even more weight.
“I feel good about it, but I don't feel like I'm done,” Niang says. “I still work every day like I'm 260. I feel like there's more improvement to be made."