Lena Niang hopes to earn way into Temple’s starting five

Junior forward Lena Niang averages 11 minutes in five games off the bench.

Junior forward Lena Niang passes the ball during Temple’s season-opening, 96-72, win against Delaware State University on Nov. 10 at McGonigle Hall. | JAMIE COTTRELL / FILE PHOTO

For junior forward Lena Niang, the desire to compete drove her to seek more from her college basketball experience.

Niang spent her freshman year at her first-choice school, North Carolina State University, where she averaged 4.8 minutes and just less than two points in eight games.

Niang wanted more from her college basketball experience. After the 2015-16 season, she decided to transfer to Temple (4-2), where she had a relationship with the coaches and would get a chance to play. The university was originally her second choice.

“My freshman year, I feel like it was a lot of seniors,” Niang said. “I was impatient to keep waiting and waiting for my time, so I decided to come here.”

“She made a mistake the first time, that’s how I look at it,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “We were pretty shocked that she didn’t come, but things happen for a reason and we welcomed her back with open arms.”

Due to transfer and eligibility rules, Niang had to sit out last season. She was allowed to participate in practices and watch home games with the team, but she couldn’t travel with the team for away games.

Despite the frustration that came with watching without being able to play, Niang gained a lot of knowledge from her role as an active observer, Cardoza said.

“I already know the plays,” Niang said. “It’s not like the freshmen where they have to learn the plays. I already know what coach expects and what she likes, so that’s definitely a benefit.”

“I think last year was just a year to get her comfortable with everything,” senior guard Khadijah Berger said. “Comfortable with coach, comfortable with playing at an entirely different program, and I think it’s her year to show everybody what she’s made of.”

Now that Niang is eligible to play, she has seen an average of 11 minutes of playing time in five games off the bench. She averages two rebounds and two points per game.

On Wednesday, Niang scored five points in just seven minutes against Big 5 rival La Salle. That total tied her season-best five points against Delaware State University in Temple’s first game of the season on Nov. 10. Niang also totaled her season-best two steals and five rebounds against the Hornets.

“I want to have a really good season, and at some point, I want to start,” Niang said. “So that’s a good goal.”

Cardoza is also making shooting more often a goal for Niang. Due to Niang’s ability to play both small and power forward, Cardoza said developing Niang’s shot would make her even more of a threat.

Through five games, Niang is shooting 4-for-15 from the field and 2-for-11 from the 3-point line.

“She’s capable of being a really good shooter, and her length is something that not a lot of people have,” Cardoza said. “If she spends a lot of time working on it, she can be a really good shooter for us.”

Another one of Niang’s goals is to help the team win the Big 5 title and make the NCAA Tournament again after last season’s first-round loss.

Because of NCAA transfer rules, Niang couldn’t travel with the team when it went to Durham, North Carolina, to play against the University of Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, so it is particularly important to Niang that the Owls qualify this season.

Niang brings a style of play to the Owls that some people, like Berger, compare to that of Kevin Durant, a forward for the Golden State Warriors and eight-time NBA All-Star.

Durant typically plays the three and four positions, or small forward and power forward, similar to what Niang anticipates to do this season.

“She’s very versatile, and she has a really, really long wingspan, so that’s a definite plus,” Berger said. “I always say she reminds me of Kevin Durant. She really does. The way she shoots, just her style of play.”

“I guess they tell me I’m like KD because I’m tall and skinny,” Niang said. “It feels good, but I wish it was [former Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard] Kobe [Bryant].”

Niang stands at 6 feet 2 inches tall, and her length has helped her record a block and three steals. Still, in Cardoza’s mind, Niang has room to improve before she reaches Durant’s level.

“She thinks she’s KD,” said Cardoza, chuckling. “That’s big shoes to fill, trying to compare yourself to KD.”

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