Shabazz Napier’s Maturity Fuels a Final Four Run to RememberPosted by Bennet Hayes on April 2nd, 2014
The lasting takeaway from the tournament that began UConn’s 2010-11 season is the same memory that defined the NCAA Tournament that ended it: Kemba Walker’s brilliance. The year of Kemba may have reached a crescendo in March and early April three years ago, but it began back in November 2010, when Walker’s three-day, 90-point bender propelled the unranked Huskies to an unexpected Maui Invitational title. Lost within that preseason title run was our then-insignificant introduction to Connecticut freshman Shabazz Napier. The Massachusetts native has never been short on confidence, but back then, his self-assurance served only to speed up the game around him. Napier went 7-of-22 from the field in Maui, committed more turnovers than assists, and was a largely inconsequential element of the Huskies’ early-season championship run.
Of course, almost any Husky not named Kemba could have fallen into that category – both in Maui and beyond — but Napier’s opening act at the school was a representative dose of a freshman season in which reckless play and poor decision-making turned him into quite the efficiency drain. On the season, Napier shot under 33 percent from three-point range, made just 42 percent of his two-point attempts, and posted an astronomically high turnover rate of 22.3 percent. For the sake of reference, the freshman’s ball-dominating teammate, Walker, had a turnover rate nearly half that of Napier that season (11.6 %). Comparisons to NPOYs aren’t always the fairest, but either way, the statistical breakdown of Napier’s freshman year is incapable of hiding the immaturity that he brought with him to Storrs. He ended that season as a national champion and a key piece of UConn’s future, but significant refinement was needed for Napier to ever realize his potential.
Fast forward to last Sunday, when this season’s UConn Huskies beat Michigan State to advance to the Final Four. Napier, his sidekick days long past, scored 25 points and dished out four assists in a performance that would lead to his future anointment as the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player. The senior’s luminosity ensured that UConn will play at least one more game this season, but at least in some regard, Napiers March Garden party marked the completion of a remarkable personal transformation. It wasn’t that his journey ever demanded a true restart — the seeds capable of producing a big-time college star have always been there — but a more mature, cerebral approach was mandatory if an ascension like this one was ever to happen.
In some ways, the current version of Shabazz Napier is no different than the old version of Shabazz Napier. You notice it when he gets the chance to break a team’s back with a contested jump shot, or when a no-look bullet pass somehow finds its way through a congested zone into the hands of a teammate for a dunk. He’s still the showman, the cocksure play-maker who believes he can do anything on the basketball court. But accompanying that flair for the dramatic is a maturity that can only be gained from running a college basketball team for four seasons. Experience has turned the confidence that made him appear brash and uncoachable as a freshman into a steady fearlessness and valuable leadership. Decisions on the court are made with an unemotional, level-headed calm; the contested, early-shot clock three-point attempts have been cast aside for disciplined offensive sets. Passes that would have been thrown three seasons ago are now holstered; nights with single digit field-goal attempts welcomed; and defense has gone from optional to mandatory. In short, Shabazz Napier has become the floor general every college coach dreams of having.
Napier’s overall productivity has clearly grown by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons, but his efficiency numbers are what really tell the story of a maturing player. His offensive rating has improved in each of his four seasons in Storrs, while that egregiously high freshman year turnover rate has decreased correspondingly. And despite taking more attempts every year, Napier’s three-point shooting percentage has improved each season (hello improved shot selection!); the senior also boasts career highs in rebounding percentages (defensive and offensive) and free throw attempts, makes, and percentage. Napier’s clutch play and leadership have rightfully been praised often in recent days, but his superior intangibles shouldn’t shield the reality of a player that has trimmed almost all the fat from his game. Bazzy still knows how to put on a show – the lethal crossover and mind-bending passing ability are still there – but the jaw-dropping now comes at no expense to efficient, winning basketball.
It will happen this Saturday. Tough Florida defense and Scottie Wilbekin be damned, Napier will do something that will make you say “Wow!” It may turn out to be an end-of-shot clock three with a hand in his face, an acrobatic transition layup, or a pass no other player on the floor could have seen, but it will happen. Moments like these have always been a part of Napier as a player, and they have undoubtedly aided the growing mystique around the UConn star, but Napier’s game is finally as substantive as it is flashy. Saturday’s awe-inspiring moments will be accompanied by shrewd decision-making, relentless defense, and steady leadership, and in the end, it’s Napier’s combination of unadulterated brilliance and measured precision that has UConn on the brink of another appearance in the National Championship game. The talented but reckless youngster was easy to miss in the midst of Walker’s brilliance four seasons ago, but this year’s star now has a chance to do the unthinkable: author a season capable of making even Kemba jealous.