John F. Silver
There are players that are better passers, better defenders and better rebounders at the guard position than Napier.
The question that needs to be asked however is if there is a better player than Napier.
In the Big East, that’s hard to find.
Take what Napier did on Sunday at Gampel Pavilion in saving UConn against South Florida.
The Huskies scored 15 points in the first half, shot 29.7 percent from the floor in the game against the Bulls and found themselves in overtime.
That’s when Napier did what he has done all season.
Napier hit three 3-pointers in overtime and scored 24 points as the Huskies (15-5, 5-3 Big East) knocked off South Florida 69-64 in overtime.
It was classic Napier with the big shots late. He scored 11 points in the overtime and 20 in the second half. When the game is on the line Napier has the ability to raise his level of play.
Napier’s 3-pointers in overtime were all opportune. After missing a 25-footer to end regulation, Napier sunk the first 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 55-52 lead. He came back and on the fastbreak settled for another 3-pointer from the right wing, he was bumped after he shot it but knocked it down for a 58-52 UConn lead. Napier’s last 3-pointer came with 1:39 left, knocking the shot down at the top of the key to give UConn a 61-54 lead and essentially seal the game.
“He just makes remarkable shots,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “He’s just got that belief in himself, that it’s a certainty, that he’s going to have confidence that it goes in. He’s committed to that shot and he’s going to knock it down.
“If he misses, he shakes it off…he’s not scared to fail, and that’s the great thing about him. He’s not scared to fail. From failure comes success, and he’s not scared to take that big shot in a big moment. Actually, I think he embraces it, which is crazy. But that’s what great players do. They embrace those situations. They live for those situations.
Napier likes to survey the landscape before hitting big shots late.
“I live for those moments,” Napier said. “I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t the guy taking those shots. I am always the guy who wants to take that last shot so I can’ t blame nobody but myself.”
It’s something Napier has been doing all season long for the surprising Huskies, 15-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big East. UConn, which has been treated as an afterthought because of the postseason bans, is closing in on another 20 win season with 10 games left. Napier is making a bid for first team all-conference and should be a Player of the Year candidate. That is, if the other coaches are paying attention.
Napier’s play for the Huskies so far this season has been outstanding. He has improved all facets of his game from shooting to decision-making to even rebounding. He he is second on the team at 4.3 rebounds per game.
That efficiency is a far cry for the Napier of the previous two years.
Napier came to UConn as a flashy and brash point guard out of Roxbury, Mass. and scored 7.9 points per game on 37 percent shooting, 32 percent from 3-point range. Napier was a key player on the national championship squad and was expected to be the main cog on last year’s loaded team that had two first round picks in Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond.
That didn’t happen as dysfunction was the calling card of a disappointing campaign. Napier scored more at 13.0 points a game, but it came on 38.9 percent shooting and 35 percent from 3-point range. He also had 94 turnovers on the season. A lot of the blame for UConn’s struggles rested on Napier’s shoulders.
Something has changed with Napier this year. The fury and explosiveness is still there, but he does it under control. This year, the 5-11 point guard is averaging 16.8 points on 45.1 percent shooting including a terrific 40.6 from 3-point range. He has only 32 turnovers in 20 games to go with 79 assists and has seemingly made every big shot the Huskies have wanted.
“Things I learned from freshman year and sophomore year,” Napier said. “I think my sophomore year biggest learning experience ever as a leader and as a player. Things that I didn’t understand going into sophomore year I understand as a junior.”
Ollie sees the difference. No one has talked about Napier being a good player, conference player of the year worthy, and no one has talked about Napier’s place nationally as one of the top point guards in the county.
Ollie won’t get into all that, but he does think he has a great player on his hands.
“Best thing about Shabazz (Napier) is he expects more than I expect,” Ollie said. “That’s what great players do. His expectations are greater than mine and that’s what you do when you become a great player…he thinks he can make every shot. He’s a wonderful shooter and when he lets it goes it looks so pretty.”
Much of the country was introduced to the untamed Napier of his freshman year that excited and shocked often in the same game. Last year’s edition of Napier, the one that still sticks, is of a player who can’t exactly run a team and is too content to fire away from long distance.
No one is watching Napier this year. The Huskies are of course banned from the postseason and with that comes the ignore from the national media. Napier, who is the face of a program that is being punished for academic failure, was honored before the game for having a 3.0 GPA.
“It means a lot to my mom and family,” Napier said of academic work. “My mom worked so hard when I was growing up. I wasn’t a good kid, kind of a headache. For her to see that 3.0…I feel good; I do it for her.”
For some reason Napier’s name hasn’t been mentioned among the nations elite. It’s perception and bias over results.
That’s the rest of the country’s loss.
The junior from Roxbury is putting together a virtuoso junior campaign and it’s worthy of any other guard in the country.