Napier a worthy heir

UConn guard Shabazz Napier is quietly having a great season for the 16-6 Huskies.

UConn guard Shabazz Napier is quietly having a great season for the 16-6 Huskies.

John F. Silver

So much of college basketball deals with timing.

No, not timing on the court but circumstance and environment. Moments make the man and circumstance brings out the best in some players.

It’s not always about how well you play, it’s where and when you are playing well.

Think back two years ago to Kemba Walker. He never missed a shot or lost a game, right? Or do we think of him better because of his March explosion and 11 for 11 on the way to the Big East Conference and national title?

If a player is having a great season, and no one watches or cares, is it still a great season?

We are finding out this season with perhaps the most misunderstood player in America in Shabazz Napier.

Everyone knows who Napier is, but few are paying attention to how well he is playing.

Napier pulled a “Kemba” on Sunday against Seton Hall scoring 18 of his 22 points in the second half and the Huskies won 78-67.

The most remarkable part about that performance by Napier is it was entirely expected from the Huskies’ 5-11 junior point guard. Napier dished out nine assists and also had six steals in addition to being a dominant ball pressure defender.

Here’s UConn coach Kevin Ollie after the game on Napier’s play according to the Hartford Courant:

“To be a great point guard, there’s a lot of responsibility,” Ollie said to the Courant. “If you want to be great, it means being up all the time, even when you don’t want to be up. That’s what the great ones do. Now, if [Napier] wants to continue push, push, push for that consistent. I sat him down the first five minutes [vs. St. John’s] and he took it like a man. I’m so proud of him because he is making the choice to change. He’s doing a great job for us. Without him, I don’t know where we’d be, without him playing the type of basketball he has been playing.”

Napier is the man who makes this year’s Huskies go and he has upped his game into conference Player of the Year level.

Except, that no one is actually touting him as a potential Player of the Year candidate in conference.

The Huskies are now 16-6 and 6-4 in conference and in most years would be gearing up for the NCAA tournament. Now, they are just finishing the stretch run as the Huskies face a postseason ban from the NCAA and the Big East tournament.

And therein lies the problem with Napier’s play. He’s doing it in anonymity. There isn’t a huge cry for Napier to get recognition because the team is on probation. Out of sight, out of mind.

How good has Napier been? He’s been one of the top guards in the Big East averaging 17.2 points per game on 45 percent shooting and 40 percent from 3-point range. He’s averaging 2.1 steals a game and is at his best in the second half and late. UConn doesn’t have much help inside, and Napier is the team’s second leading rebounder at 4.3 per game. He does everything.

Where does Napier stack up?

Take a look at Napier against all the other point guards on the Huskies in the last decade. Guards such as Walker, Ben Gordon, Khalid El-Amin and A.J. Price all led the Huskies to the Final Four. Napier fits right in:

Shabazz Napier Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

2012-13

22

36.5

17.2

45.0

39.7

81.5

4.3

4.3

0.1

2.1

Kemba Walker Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

2010-11

41

37.6

23.5

42.8

33.0

81.9

4.5

5.4

0.2

1.9

A.J. Price Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

2008-09

35

31.8

14.7

40.8

40.2

72.1

4.7

3.5

0.0

0.7

Marcus Williams Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

2005-06

23

33.3

12.3

40.7

40.0

86.2

8.6

3.9

0.2

0.9

Ben Gordon Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

2003-04

39

34.5

18.5

43.4

43.3

82.9

4.5

4.7

0.2

1.4

Khalid El-Amin Stat Summary:

Season

GP

MPG

PPG

FG%

3FG%

FT%

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

1999-00

35

31.9

16.0

41.1

35.6

89.2

5.2

3.1

0.1

1.7

Napier holds his own with every guard that has starred for UConn in the last decade this year. No one is saying he’s as explosive as Gordon or as indomitable as Walker. Those were unique players. But, Napier is also unique and has had his share of heroics this season. Napier has outplayed other favorites in El-Amin and Price, two players drafted into the NBA as well Marcus Williams, who received more fanfare and press than he probably deserved.

How about Napier vs. Gordon and Walker?

He’s neared their level of production with little fanfare. Napier is shooting 45 percent from the floor despite being the playmaker, No. 1 option and with zero inside game to take the pressure off.

The only thing lacking for Napier is opportunity for postseason glory. UConn’s NCAA ban is going to keep Napier’s play a secret.

Gordon’s nickname was “Ben Garden” and Walker made MSG his playground one week in March.

Legends are born in march in college basketball and that chance to make history is something Napier won’t have this year. Napier’s best bet for the third week in March is a spring break home.

Napier was a freshman on the Walker led title team and watched as Walker put the Huskies on his back and won the national title. What does Walker have over Napier? Six points a game, but Napier’s been much more efficient shooting at 45 percent and it isn’t close from 3-point range with Napier hitting nearly 40 percent to to Walker’s less than stellar 33 percent. Walker’s become mythological figure around these parts and rightly so. But, the Huskies did finish ninth in the Big East that season before the historic run. Walker was a consensus All-American selection for his play.

Napier? He would be lucky to be an honorable mention this year.

Napier’s putting together a great season in relative anonymity and it’s a sore subject around Storrs as the players have openly expressed frustration at the APR tourney ban being a punishment for a crime committed by others.

What’s left for the Huskies are a bunch of what ifs.

What if Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith didn’t transfer because of the APR and the Huskies had an inside presence? What if there was no postseason ban? What if Napier got on one of his runs in March, how far could he take them? That’s the thing about what ifs. They will never be answered.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Ask me in March.

(Stats courtesy of statsheet.com).