Napier Finally Gets His Shot Thanks To Opportunity And Improvement

by Casey Holdahl
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After seeing his minutes increase both at the end of the 2016-17 regular season and during Portland’s first-round playoff series versus the Golden State Warriors, the plan was for fourth-year guard Shabazz Napier to take on a more substantial role this season. He’d still be playing behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, so his opportunities might have been relatively sparse, but he had showed himself capable of picking up consistent, if not extensive, minutes backing up Portland’s primary ball handlers.

But a quad injury suffered early in training camp sidelined the 6-1 UCONN product for all of preseason, which might have stunted Napier’s campaign for increased playing time early in the regular season. He did play 23 minutes in Portland’s opening night blowout of the Suns in Phoenix, though he would combine to play just 23 minutes total over the next nine games, which included picking up DNPs against the Suns (the second time), Jazz, Lakers and Thunder.

But in Portland’s last three games, Napier has seen his playing time increase dramatically, and for good reason. With the Trail Blazers’ offense sputtering, Napier showed himself capable of providing a scoring punch off the bench by averaging 10.3 points on 61 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from three. Whether it was simply opportunity, improvement or both, Napier is finally getting his chance in Portland.

“It’s always great to get an opportunity to go out there and play and I think I did improve a lot in the offseason,” said Napier. “I worked my tail off.”

And it shows. Napier is third on the team in offensive rating, second in net rating and owns by far the best assist to turnover ratio and true shooting percentage of any player on the roster. While it’s unlikely that he’ll continue to shoot 60 percent from the field and 56 percent from three, Napier says his effort on both sides of the ball will remain constant even if his percentages don’t.

“I kind of live by the saying ‘Let the game tell you what to do,’” said Napier. “Some days it tells me to become more of an offensive threat and other days it tells me to pick up on defense. It just depends on the day.”

The days when he has to make that distinction are likely to become more common, as it seems as though Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts is determined to get Napier in the game more often, as was the case in Monday night’s 99-82 victory versus the Nuggets at the Moda Center. In a rare move, Stotts opted to play much of the second quarter of that game with both Lillard and McCollum on the bench, the result of which was the reserve unit, led by Napier and Evan Turner, extending Portland’s lead.

“He’s definitely impacted the game every time he’s got out there,” said Lillard of Napier. “We can count on him getting in the game. I think Coach has seen that he can depend on him, I think he has a lot of faith and trust in him, what he does out there. Just very solid, bringing something positive to the game. It’s good to see him getting that opportunity. He’s helping our team so it’s pretty good for us.”

While Napier has shown this season that he’s ready to be a regular part of the rotation, it’s unlikely that he’ll know how many minutes he’s likely to see on a game-to-game basis. There will be nights when circumstances might make it difficult to carve out even limited minutes for the 24th pick of the 2014 Draft, just as there will be other times when favorable matchups might result in him seeing extended time. That uncertainty is certainly not Napier’s preference (or the preference of any player, for that matter), but he’s become accustomed to operating under such conditions, and at least lately, with great results.

“You want to know, mentally it prepares you,” said Napier.  “But I’ve been in this league for four years now and every year it’s been the same. I kind of unwittingly became accustomed to it. At the end of the day, I always feel like just be prepared mentally for 48 minutes. If you get called, you get called.”