AMES, Iowa (AP) The seventh-ranked Iowa State Cyclones are considered a national title contender because of a star-studded roster led by All-American Georges Niang.
So far, unheralded senior Abdel Nader has been as valuable as anyone on the team.
Nader has made the most of his move into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds through two games, stabilizing a team still adjusting to new coach Steve Prohm.
Iowa State (2-0) hosts Chattanooga on Monday.
''He's really our `X' factor. Teams know about most of our guys, and (Nader) is like that hidden gem,'' Niang said. ''He wants to win just as bad as any of us.''
Entering the season, the Cyclones lineup looked solid. Junior Monte Morris was locked at point guard after leading the nation in turnover to assist ratio two years in a row. Senior Naz Mitrou-Long was back at shooting guard after a pair of hip surgeries.
Niang and center Jameel McKay are seniors and first-team preseason all-league picks.
But Nader had been a bench player - and contemplated leaving the team after Fred Hoiberg's departure and Prohm's arrival.
Nader didn't start once last year for Iowa State after transferring from Northern Illinois, where he earned first-team All-MAC honors as a freshman and led his team with 13.1 points as a sophomore.
There were plenty of glimpses that Nader was capable of more.
Nader helped the Cyclones pull away at rival Iowa with 19 points, including four 3s, last December. He also had 13 points in a win over Kansas in the Big 12 title game, arguably one of the biggest victories in school history.
Still, it took multiple conversations with Prohm and Nader's family to convince him to stay and play a supporting role on a team loaded with players with bigger names.
''Any time you're needed, it feels good,'' Nader said.
He subsequently got in the best shape of his career, dropping nearly 20 pounds and committing to the role Prohm envisioned for him.
''Once he finally said he was all in, he's been all in. He's done everything I've asked,'' Prohm said. ''He's been terrific. I couldn't ask for anything more from him.''
Nader's been at his best when the Cyclones needed a boost in their first two games.
Nader scored all 14 of his points in the second half in a 68-62 win over Colorado, giving Iowa State the cushion it needed to stave off a late rally.
Nader also scored the first four baskets in the second half of a 106-64 rout of Chicago State on Monday, helping the Cyclones blow past an opponent they let hang around in the first half.
''It been about being more consistent on and off the court, whether it's academics or working out every day,'' Nader said. ''I've been around these guys for a while now. We have really good chemistry.''
It's also apparent that Nader's emergence has become less of a luxury and more of a necessity for the Cyclones. Because even when promising Marquette transfer Denote Burton becomes eligible, Iowa State likely will have just eight guys Prohm feels comfortable playing on a regular basis.
While Nader isn't as well known as Niang or McKay, he may be just as important to the Cyclones when Big 12 play starts.
''We need him to keep playing the way he has. We expect him to keep playing the way he has,'' McKay said. ''He puts in the work.''
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