Almost halfway through his fourth season as a professional in the NBA, there’s one question that hasn’t quite yet crossed Shabazz Napier’s mind—is this where he expected to be at this stage of his career?
“You know what? I haven’t even thought about that,” Napier told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a great question.”
The inquiry arises because this has easily been the 26-year-old’s most productive year since he came into the league. Go across the board all-around.
He’s been more aggressive in getting to the basket and taking better shots, and he’s making those attempts at a much higher rate than in past seasons. He’s taken care of the basketball. He’s had active hands on defense.
It’s a conviction in Napier’s game that we haven’t seen from him at this level yet. In case you don’t remember, he was a fan favorite at his alma mater UConn for his contributions to the program. During his stay under both the legendary Jim Calhoun and his successor Kevin Ollie, he won two championships as a freshman and a senior.
First serving as Kemba Walker’s backup, Napier appeared in all 41 games and was named to the Big East All-Rookie team on the way to title number one. In his final year, he earned American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and orchestrated a historic run to a national championship win as a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a memorable moment for college basketball and the Huskies, who were in their first year of eligibility after a postseason ban the previous season. The heart and determination that made Napier the center of that Cinderella story caught the attention of LeBron James, who at the time tweeted, “No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier” after the game.
When the greatest basketball player in the world publicly praises your name, there’s obviously going to be a lot of attention and a lot of hype coming your way. Looking back though, Napier didn’t think it helped him or hurt him at the time.
“I didn’t feel no pressure,” he told Basketball Insiders. “Basically, I didn’t have an opportunity coming from when I first started. I didn’t get much of an opportunity in Miami. I damn sure didn’t get an opportunity in Orlando. So that has held me back, but it’s part of life.
“You gotta figure out ways to better yourself each and every day. It sucks to be in that situation in the beginning, but it got me where I am now.”
The Portland Trail Blazers have given him the chance he desires. In his second year with the team, he’s legitimately felt comfortable.
“It shows on the court, but I just think it’s the opportunity,” Napier told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve always felt like I can contribute to a team, given the opportunity, so I just try to take advantage of it.”
Most recently, when Damian Lillard was sidelined for five games with a right hamstring strain, Napier was called upon to step in and deliver. He didn’t disappoint.
During the stretch, he took initiative to attack and be a primary source of scoring for a Blazers team who desperately needed offensive help. Lillard, who has grown close to him since he joined the organization, offered up words of encouragement while he was out.
“Just be myself,” Napier told Basketball Insiders of Lillard’s advice. “Just try to be the Shabazz he knows. Go out there, have confidence and build yourself up to where you can understand the game each night in and night out.
“Just be willing to understand at that level—since I haven’t been at that level since I’ve been in the NBA. I haven’t been a starter, a consistent starter or played that many minutes, so he just told me to be myself.”
Playing over 36 minutes per game and recording three 20-plus-point performances, Napier had arguably his best week in the NBA. Aside from an off shooting night in Chicago, he went nearly 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. He got to the line at least four times per game, got teammates involved, and even pulled down some key rebounds.
His fearlessness in the late December stint led Portland to a 3-2 record in Lillard’s absence.
“That’s who I am,” Napier told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve always been that type of player to be aggressive and letting the game tell you what to do as you’re aggressing. I mean, I’m fortunate enough to make shots and fortunate enough to make the right plays, but there are times where you learn from your own mistakes.
“I think it’s a growing confidence just based on—no matter who you are as a player, you have to learn from your own experience. You can’t learn from watching somebody else. Being able to play the game and watch film and learn at the same time has helped me gain confidence in my game. It’s been huge for me because of what type of player I am. I’m a scoring guard and to have confidence in my own game, it makes everything else easier.”
Terry Stotts has voiced his thoughts on Napier’s improvements prior to the performances he put together, but acknowledged how extra crucial he was to the team’s success in that period of time.
“Well to be honest, ‘Bazz has been playing pretty well for us, even before he was in the starting lineup,” Portland’s head coach said. “Arguably our best threesome is Dame, C.J. [McCollum] and Shabazz out there. He’s provided scoring for us with Dame out. We needed his scoring.
“When either he or C.J. are on the court, he runs a team. It’s a balancing act for all three of those guys being a scoring point guard to know when to look for your shot and when to involve other people.”
Napier agrees with his coach’s sentiments regarding the three-guard lineup. Having played 101 minutes together on the floor, the Lillard-McCollum-Napier unit has the Blazers’ second-best net rating. The trio is also allowing just 92.3 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the lowest on the team.
He feels that their games compliment each other in a unique way and it helps throw the opponents out of sync, especially on the offensive end.
“I think the fact that we’re all scorers and we all have that scorer mentality,” he told Basketball Insiders of why it works. “But we understand that sometimes it’s not your time to score, so you’re still out there as a threat.
“No one’s gonna leave C.J. open or Dame, so the space that you have to make a move to do something is opened so much more, and that opens up our games because we’re all drivers, we’re all aggressive players when it comes to off the dribble.”
We might be seeing those three out on the floor more often together because, as mentioned before, the Blazers are a team that struggles to put points on the board. According to Cleaning The Glass, they have the fourth-worst effective field goal percentage in the league (49.9) and an offensive rating in the bottom five amongst their peers.
“I mean, at the end of the day you gotta put the ball in the basket,” Napier told Basketball Insiders of the issues. “In the thick of things we’ve got to be able to put the ball in the basket. We’ve got to be able to run. We have the players to do so.”
Despite a 19-18 record, that is an area that has to improve if Portland expects to make its fifth consecutive playoff appearance under Stotts, and Napier knows it.
“Right now we’re up and down,” he told Basketball Insiders when asked to assess where the team is. “It’s like a roller coaster. We’re not really as consistent as we’d like to be. I think that we’re moving in the right space.
“Our defense has been good this year, it’s just our offense has not. Lately, we’ve been playing much better. Everybody’s been able to score the ball, so once that continues to occur and our defense gets better, I think we can continue to move in the right direction.”
As for his own expectations, Napier isn’t paying attention to the individual statistics or whatever awards may come his way.
He’s already a two-time champion at the collegiate level. The next step is to taste gold once again at the professional level.
“I mean, more personally I’ve always felt like no matter how successful I am—meaning getting accolades and all that good stuff—if I don’t win a championship, then that don’t really mean nothing to me,” Napier told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve always been that way since I was young.
“I haven’t done much yet, but all this stuff hasn’t even really bothered me in a positive or negative way because at the end of the day I want to win at the highest level. And that’s what motivates me every day.”
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