UConn's Napier makes a name for himself
POSTED: Mar 26, 2014 3:35 PM ET
The NCAA tournament deck was reshuffled after a first week that featured the usual array of upsets. That one of the 16 teams still standing is Connecticut may be surprising to some. But it shouldn't be to anyone who's had the pleasure of watching Shabazz Napier on a regular basis.
Huskie fans are currently in a state of mass déjà vu, given that just three years ago, their team stormed through the bracket and won the national championship while riding the transformative performances of guard Kemba Walker. The comparisons between Walker and Napier, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, are inevitable. Both put together exceptional senior seasons -- Walker was a consensus first-team All-American and Napier was chosen a first-team All-America and the player of the year in the American Athletic Conference -- and both elevated their play in the NCAAs. Walker averaged 23.5 points and was chosen the 2011 tournament's Most Outstanding Player. After two wins last week over Saint Joseph's and Villanova, Napier is averaging 22.5 points.
"Both are fearless," UConn assistant coach Glen Miller said. "Both are very tough-minded players. Both would do anything to help their team win. Shabazz shoots the ball at this same stage much better. And Kemba, baseline to baseline, is quicker and finishes to the rim better. So they're different players. But they both have a major, major impact, and they're both capable of taking over a game and carrying their team, and have done that many times."
Play-by-play announcer Joe D'Ambrosio has been on the microphone for all three of UConn's national championships and has seen numerous talented players pass through the program en route to the NBA. When he compares Napier and Walker, D'Ambrosio points to the supporting cast around each.
"This group's not bad by any means," D'Ambrosio said. "But Kemba's cast was a lot better, with guys like [Jeremy] Lamb and [Alex] Oriakhi. But they're very similar players. Both are great kids. Both are outstanding leaders. I think Shabazz is a little flashier than Kemba, who was a little more of a feet-to-the-ground type of player.
"In Shabazz's case, his flair for the dramatic helps him. Kemba had that, too, but Shabazz is more showy. In a good way, though. Certainly not in a bad way."
Napier's ascension to even be compared with Walker has been a process. UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who was an assistant to Jim Calhoun when Napier was a freshman on the 2011 national title team, thinks maturity has made a big difference in not only Napier's game, but his general outlook on life.
"He's worked so much on his attitude, just as he has with his game," Ollie said. "He's gone from a freshman who kind of thought he knew it all to saying, 'OK, I want to be coached.' He's grown up during his time here. He's become a man."
Napier's had plenty of highlights. His shot at the buzzer handed Florida, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, its last loss, on Dec. 2. In the Huskies' second-round victory over Saint Joseph's, Napier scored nine points in overtime. Against Villanova, he delivered 21 second-half points.
If UConn keeps going, it stands to reason that Napier will boost his draft stock as scouts learn to live with his weaknesses and continue to marvel at his strengths.
"In terms of the negatives, you could question his ability to finish to the rim," Miller said. "You could question, obviously, that he's a smaller guard. The flipside of that is when he plays against bigger, stronger guards, when he plays against guys that project as higher draft choices, he's won, I'd say, 95 percent of those matchups he's had.
"He'll go out and play good basketball against teams that we should beat, but he always steps up his game when we're playing the real good teams with the real good players."
Napier isn't afraid of working hard to get better, and he isn't afraid of putting himself on the line. Those are some solid next-level talking points. And then there's his character, which has been revealed for a national audience during the NCAA tournament.
After UConn knocked Saint Joseph's out of the NCAAs, Napier embraced the Hawks' seniors. After the game he was asked about that gesture.
"I didn't know those guys until today," Napier said. "But I'm passionate about the game, and I saw it in their eyes. They're seniors, and this is it. I would have loved for them to do the same thing for me. When you work so hard for something, and it goes down the drain, that saddens me."
Napier didn't seek out the press, but last week the story of how he supported high school basketball player Connor Reed, who was stricken with a rare disease that, for a time, left him paralyzed, came to light. Reed is slowly recovering, thanks in part to a video of encouragement Napier sent when he heard Reed, now playing wheelchair basketball, began calling himself "Shabazz on Wheels."
"I want you to keep fighting, to keep going," Napier told Reed in his video. "Every time you make a basket, think of me. Every time I make a basket, I'm gonna have you in my prayers."
Can Napier's time on the big stage last all the way to the Final Four? Even if it doesn't, Napier made his mark at UConn. His latest challenge will be to check Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane, a big point at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, in a Friday night Sweet 16 match-up. If he does that, and the Huskies win, it's on to the Elite Eight. And from there, as UConn proved in 2011, anything can happen.
"If UConn were to win the national championship," D'Ambrosio said. "Then I would have to say that Shabazz Napier's year was more spectacular than Kemba Walker's was in 2011."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.