Shabazz Napier on UConn and His Recent NBA Rise
BROOKLYN — Though he had quite the successful career at UConn, Shabazz Napier wasn’t your prototypical NBA prospect. As a shoot-first, undersized lead guard without the elite athleticism of someone like Kyrie Irving, few expected him to make any impact at the next level. It’s taken a lot of patience and persistence to find his niche in the league, but Napier is settling in with the Brooklyn Nets, his 4th team in his five NBA seasons.
“I didn’t take the easy road here,” he told Storrs Central in an exclusive interview in late February. “So I don’t expect the easy road to be in front of me.”
As LeBron James was plotting to leave Miami and return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, he called Napier his favorite player in that year’s draft. One day later Napier was traded from the Bobcats to the Heat, though James’ departure soon thereafter made his endorsement of Napier to Miami a bit moot. Thirteen months after his draft night, Napier was dealt to Orlando after his rookie season for what ended up being nothing. Less than a year after that, Orlando traded him to Portland.
After a strong second season with the Blazers, Napier departed Portland for the east coast, signing with the Brooklyn Nets, not far from his spiritual Connecticut home and his hometown of Roxbury, Mass.
After not playing much to start the season, Napier has become an integral rotation piece for a surprisingly strong Brooklyn side. Napier is averaging 22.5 minutes per game since entering the Brooklyn rotation on December 29, and averaging 12.7 points per game over that time.
That’s quite a change for Napier from how his coach, Kenny Atkinson, viewed him back in November, saying that it would be tough for Napier “to play more than 10” minutes. But Napier has forced his way into Brooklyn’s plans, even amid a roster featuring both D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie at point guard.
“If you can go three deep, because it’s such an important position today,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said of Napier's contribution to the team, per Newsday. "Imagine if we don’t have him right now, I don’t know what you do. Signing him was a great job by Sean [Marks, Nets general manager].”
Now Napier has a solid hold on an NBA roster spot, but that was far from a given when he got started.
After winning the National Championship backing up Kemba Walker at point guard as a freshman, Napier said that he felt he didn’t play as well as a sophomore when UConn lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That was followed by Jim Calhoun’s retirement and a postseason ban for Napier’s junior season.
“It just taught me how to be resilient, helped me be a leader,” Napier said of his time at UConn, especially during that trying transition period. “It pushed me to believe that the game is more than physical. A lot of it’s mental. Just staying with it, believing in yourself. A lot of it also comes from Coach Ollie.”
Kevin Ollie, Calhoun’s replacement, only averaged 15.6 minutes played per game during his NBA career as a backup guard, but he played 13 seasons. That patience and persistence was imparted to Napier, who’s embarking on what he hopes is a lengthy career like his former coach and mentor.
“He told many stories,” Napier said, “about what he had to go through and what put him over the hump every time he felt some type of bad experience, not being able to play.”
While Napier said that Ollie taught every player these lessons, what Ollie saw in Napier were their similar upbringings.
“Coming from a bad neighborhood, growing up in the unfortunate part of the world,” he said. “And just always being gritty and always believing in yourself. I think he saw that in me.”
Napier’s Huskies went 10-8 in Big East play in his junior season, Ollie’s first year as head coach. He could’ve taken the easy road out and declared for the NBA Draft, but Napier wanted to help the team get back into the postseason and get his UConn degree. So he elected to stay in school and led UConn to another national championship to close out his storied collegiate career.
“At the end of the day, winning at the highest level, winning with your brothers,” meant a lot to Napier. “Winning with Coach Calhoun, Coach Ollie, Coach Blaney, a lot of those guys. Just being able to be a part of that group of just a winning team. Myself, Niels [Giffey], Tyler Olander, Jeremy Lamb, the freshman group that came in. It was just exciting to be with those guys.”
Being at Storrs for those four years taught him critical life lessons both on and off the court, including “socially, being able to be part of different things within the school,” he said.
“Other than maybe one or two years being away from my mother,” Napier said, “that was like the longest I’ve been away from my mother growing up, having to be basically on my own.”
When things get hard for Napier, 27, even to this day, he still looks to his mother and family members for guidance. It’s a major reason why Napier’s favorite UConn memory is the day he graduated, getting that degree with his family in attendance.
Even though Napier’s last name falls out in the middle of the alphabet, he was the final person called up at graduation. And though he said he wasn’t 100 percent certain that this was done on purpose, the faculty surely knew it had to save the best for last.
“Everyone got their diplomas and I was the last one,” Napier said. “I was able to go down and as soon as they called my name, everybody was just cheering. And it felt like I did everything I could to be a UConn Husky outside of basketball.”
The patience, persistence and perseverance Napier learned over his four years at UConn has certainly reaped its rewards. He's in a good situation as a key member of a playoff team and has a team option for $1.8 million for next season that would appear appealing to the Nets ahead of what is expected to be a shopping frenzy free agency period this summer. Napier definitely hasn’t taken the easy road, but thanks to his time in Storrs, his life and his career are an unquestioned success, and he's also likely to succeed after his playing days are over.
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