The Sixth Man. The “Long” Ball. Three-sus of Nazareth — Naz Long’s knack for hitting clutch three-pointers has earned him more nicknames than he can count.
He’s as much of a celebrity on the Iowa State campus as any Iowa State athlete, but he will be the first to tell you the rest of the team gets just as much attention as him.
That’s how Naz Long operates: Humble. Confident. Selfless.
That’s why coach Fred Hoiberg was confident re-inserting him into the Oklahoma State game in Stillwater, Okla., despite shooting 0-for-4 to start the game. The No. 16 Cyclones had dropped four of their last six games heading into the matchup against the No. 19 Cowboys, hanging on to their top 25 ranking by a thread.
Long struggled in regulation, turning the ball over twice and failing to score. But in the second overtime with less than 15 seconds remaining, Hoiberg reinserted Long into the game. As time ticked away, Long watched as Matt Thomas missed a 3-pointer to tie the game. Deandre Kane pulled down the long rebound, stepping back behind the 3-point line to tie the game as the seconds ticked away. But instead, Kane saw Long calling for the ball and dumped it over to him.
With a defender charging at him and the clock winding down, Naz caught the ball and shot in one motion, nailing the fade-away 3-pointer with less than two seconds remaining to force a third overtime.
But there was no celebration, no taunting, no begging for attention. Instead, Naz was the first to the huddle giving words of encouragement going into the third overtime.
“Coach Hoiberg believes in me,” Long said. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to hit that shot. I knew that when I got the ball in my hands, I didn’t have to think twice about shooting.”
That’s how he operates: Humble. Confident. Selfless.
Then he did it again in Ames, forcing overtime on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the second time against the Cowboys. Long only took a moment to recognize the home crowd in Hilton before heading back to the huddle to help his team focus going into overtime.
“The reason I didn’t celebrate is I knew we still had an overtime. We had an overtime we needed to win, so someone like myself, I’m going to get hyped here and there, but I’m going to keep it to a minimum.”
Finding his role
Long looked destined to be a star from day one. Hoiberg showed confidence in Long, playing him 20 or more minutes in the first three games of his freshman year. Then, the drop off.
“I went from playing 30 minutes a couple games to 17, 15 to not playing at all,” Long said.
To outsiders, Long was just another body on the floor. Some people thought Hoiberg had misinterpreted his level of talent on the recruiting trail. Maybe Naz wasn’t ready for the big stage. None of that got to Long’s head.
“My freshman year, I didn’t do too much. I wasn’t actually on the court doing things I wanted to do, so that humbled me,” he said. “That’s something my dad was as an athlete. Humble, yet competitive and being able to push people. That’s who I am.”
So he worked harder. Long’s roommate and rising star, Georges Niang, only fueled his already competitive nature. When the 2013-14 season kicked off, Long was near the bottom of the list of players people had high expectations for. It’s not that they didn’t like him, they just had no reason to believe in him.
He gave them a reason to believe after knocking down 8-of-11 threes and scoring 26 points in the season opener.
“Naz has worked super hard, probably harder than anybody I know just to find a niche,” Niang said. “He came in here as a point guard and now he’s our best shooter on the team.”
And, boy, did he shoot. Long made it no secret that he was going to shoot 3-pointers with 80 percent of his shots coming from behind the arc. He made 64 threes — a top-20 mark in school history — and hit game-tying 3-pointers in three games to force overtime or allow the Cyclones to hit a go-ahead shot.
It wasn’t the role he expected to play after being recruited as a point guard. It was a long cry from his freshman campaign of 1.4 points per game, increasing his production to 7.1 points per game. But it helped his team, and that’s all that mattered to Long.
Whether it’s putting up 500 shots hours after practice or walking into an empty gym on the weekends to work on footwork, Long is working harder than he ever has to improve himself. But he will be the first to tell you it’s not just him — it’s the whole team.
That’s how he operates: Humble. Confident. Selfless.
“He just finds a way to put himself in the position to be successful, and when you have a guy like that who’s next to you all the time, you want to work just as hard as he does to make yourself just as successful,” Niang said. “It’s a great story behind his whole M.O. and how he is. He’s going to work harder than the next guy just so he can be successful, and I think it’s great.”
Hoiberg has assembled his deepest team yet, with anywhere from 10 to 12 young men capable of helping the Cyclones win games. Naz is one of those guys. But the sharp-shooter came off the bench most of last season, only starting in seven of 36 games near the end of the season.
With highly anticipated transfers and fresh faces ready to make their Cyclone debuts, Hoiberg said players may see their minutes go down. Don’t worry — you will see a lot of Naz Long, but after his meteoric rise from the end of the bench to Cyclone celebrity status, you have to wonder what that does to Long’s psyche, right? Nope.
“If I play a minute a game, I’m going to go in there and give it my all,” Long said. “I’m going to make sure every shot I take has the best chance of going in, every dribble I take is the right dribble. Whatever role I’m given, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
And as far as any harsh feelings between players fighting for playing time, forget about it. Long and Hoiberg said players have been practicing harder than ever before for one reason: a national championship.
Whether that means three-point buzzer beaters or being a vocal leader on the bench, Long is ready to embrace his role.
"It doesn’t matter how many minutes I play, I just know that I’m striving to be great," Long said. "I just want to leave my mark here at Iowa State.”
Because that's how he operates: Humble. Confident. Selfless.