Increased Minutes Unlock Shabazz Napier's Razzle Dazzle

by Casey Holdahl
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Trail Blazers guard Shabazz Napier didn’t know he would be starting in place of Damian Lillard (right calf strain) in Sunday night’s 111-110 victory versus the San Antonio Spurs at the Moda Center until a little over a half hour before tipoff. But having relatively little forewarning didn’t stop the 6-1 guard out of UConn from having an early impact on Sunday’s win, as he handed our four assists in the first quarter.

And a number of those assists were of highlight quality, including a behind-the-back pass to Zach Collins that was named the NBA’s Assist of the Night. It was just the latest in a string of performances from Napier in which he has managed to do some spectacular with his passing, though he defers much of the credit to his teammates, as any good point guard typically does.

“Some are a little over the top, so it makes it seem like it’s something bigger,” said Napier of his fancy passing in Sunday night’s win. “But I feel like with Moe (Harkless) playing the way he’s been playing when he gets in the game — he’s looking more confident, he’s being who he is — we’re having Zach (Collins) and guys that can stretch the floor, Pat (Connaughton), you can’t leave Pat and Ed (Davis) setting great screens, it makes it easy for me to do certain things. Get in the paint to look for guys for open shots, so it makes it easy for me. Sometimes I put a little over the top-ness on it. I was just fortunate enough for the ball to bounce the way it do and guys are ready for it.”

While good fortune and his teammates playing with their collective heads on a swivel certainly plays a part in Napier’s increasingly common ability to dazzle and drop jaws via physics-defying dimes, it’s also a product of increased playing time. With Lillard in and out of the lineup for the last few weeks, Napier, who had already worked his way into the rotation prior to Lillard’s injury, has seen his minutes increase dramatically as of late. And that increase — he’s played at least 30 minutes in six of his last eight appearances after logging that many minutes just eight times in his entire NBA career — has unlocked Napier’s “over the top” passing in two ways.

First, Napier knows that, with Lillard out and few other point guard options on the roster, he’s got more freedom to make mistakes without fear of being benched. That’s not to say that he’s always looking over his shoulder or playing tentatively when Lillard is healthy, but it’s a simple fact that players tend to play more free when they know minutes are all but guaranteed.

And secondly, there’s a sense of timing and spatial recognition that players, and especially point guards, tend to pick up on when they see the court more frequently. Whether it’s developing a more innate sense of where your teammates are going to be or recognizing when to best attack a rotating defense, playing considerable minutes on a consistent basis gives a player like Napier the confidence to throw passes that look more likely to end up in the third row than in the back of the net.

“I think that’s what it is,” said Napier when asked if having more leeway has resulted in more highlight reel assists. “I think understanding I’m going to play more, but at the same time it’s me understanding the game much more to a certain extent. When I come off of pick and rolls, that window’s closed so quick and lately, I’ve been playing so I’ve been understanding what works well and what doesn’t. To put myself in that position each and every game, I feel like I’m getting more comfortable with that.”

While making plays that result in points for his teammates is Napier’s primary goal when throwing a pass, he does admit that there’s also something to be gained by adding a touch of showmanship every now and then. That might be especially true for a team that has had difficulty winning games at home as the Trail Blazers have so far this season. Perhaps due to inconsistent play and/or an offense that has struggled to score efficiently, crowds at the Moda Center have been a bit moribund this season, at least relative to years past. So giving the Rip City faithful in attendance a little something extra to cheer for in the first quarter, as Napier did Sunday night, might help keep the crowd engaged for when they’re needed the most in the fourth quarter.

“There’s a lot of benefits to it but there’s like the risk/reward to it,” said Napier. “If I turn it over, it’s bad. If they get the ball, it’s great. Sometimes you got to limit yourself from doing it but I was fortunate enough to put the ball were it was supposed to be and guys being ready.”