Simon Fraser is Division II college basketball’s equivalent of the Toronto Raptors. Lone outpost north of the States. In fact, according to head coach James Blake, since becoming officially eligible in 2012, the Clan, located in Burnaby, BC, are the NCAA’s sole international affiliate.
Adding to that strain of uniqueness, Simon Fraser’s leader in scoring, assists and steals so far this season is a kid who attended three high schools in Southern California. Each time, he was told he wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t tall enough.
Sango Niang, who checks in a cool 6-0, 170 pounds these days, lays it out. As a freshman at Serrano High: “Didn’t get playing time.” Sophomore year at Etiwanda: “Didn’t even make the team.” Summit, for his last two years: “Spent junior year on JV. As a senior, I was a backup.”
Niang only began playing basketball competitively at age 13. He arrived in America when he was 6. His father, Babacar, was a three-time Olympic participant in the 800 meters, and he trained in Paris, France, where Niang was born. All he remembers of that city were early mornings in motion, heading to training with dad.
His parents wanted him to pursue track, but Niang felt listless when he’d participate. It was so different with hoops. He lived for games on the hardwood. Hell, he lived for practice.
Heading into the 2012-13 season, Blake looked at his upcoming depth chart for Simon Fraser. He needed a point guard.
So he tapped into his considerable network in California, built during stints spent coaching in the state. Jeff Klein, head coach at Chaffey Junior College, was one of several sources to pinpoint Sangone “Sango” Niang as a can’t-miss kid. The kid was an undersized point, but he played like a DI guy.
Klein had looked past the wayward prep route, and seen the coiled power and distributive nous. This kid could be special. He gave him a shot at Chaffey. As a 17-year-old freshman, Niang figured he would redshirt, but after scoring 25 points in the season opener, there wasn’t really a chance of that happening. “Klein believed in me,” Niang says. “Every time I have a bad game now, I talk to him.”
Blake had recruited another player at Summit High when Niang played there. Casting his mind back, he remembered Niang as a “backup’s backup.” The re-tooled Chaffey edition took Blake’s breath away.
“The first thing that caught my eye, he’s a tremendous athlete,” says Blake. “He played in a showcase event in Southern California, and he had three dunks in a row. One in transition, one on a fast break, and another on a lob where he cranked it. I’m looking around thinking, Who’s watching this kid? But no one did because of his height.”
Blake put on the full-court press, and Niang was quickly sold. Though he signed early with Simon Fraser, Blake began to feel pangs of worry as his prized recruit’s sophomore year progressed. Dude was blowing up for Chaffey.
In the JC state tournament Final Four, Niang hit the game winner to take down high-powered City College of San Francisco, which was led by current Utah star Delon Wright. But Niang wasn’t going to trade in his commitment. “We’d been on him so long, he was loyal to us,” Blake says.
It keeps coming in waves for him now. This summer, Niang did work back home in the Drew League. He faced off against James Harden, Bobby Brown and Gabe York. “I wasn’t planning on playing, but I went to an open gym about a week after I started watching, and I got asked to play. I said I’d love to. First game, I was nervous—and had 18 points. I was working hard. I had to prove my point, doing it against NBA players.”
Simon Fraser has adopted a new Run n’ Gun system this season. (They’re averaging 130 points through nine games, and have a 6-3 record.) “We get a good shot within seven seconds, play fast, make good decisions,” says Niang. He’s been sensational leading the charge.
In just 26.8 minutes, Niang posts 21.8 points, 7.9 assists and 3.4 steals. He’s hitting 47 percent of his shots and 83 percent of his free throws. In the preseason, he was ranked as the second best player in the GNAC conference. Consider him to have a good chance to take top billing. “He’s got incredible courage,” says Blake. “He just doesn’t back down.”
Like Klein before him, Blake has become a mentor.
“Me and coach Blake are close,” Niang says. “I’m away from home, so we talk about personal things. I’m glad I made the decision to come here.”
Says Blake, “Getting players of Niang’s caliber is why we are successful. And with his French background (Niang is a dual citizen of France and the US), he’s helping us recruit internationally. He’s enticed guys to come here.”
Last year, as he prepared for his Simon Fraser debut, Niang felt the familiar pang of invisibility. Now, Blake says, “He’s put his stamp on the Northwest.”