NBA Daily: Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis: Poised For Success
Both Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis are poised for success after signing with the Brooklyn Nets this summer, writes Ben Nadeau.
In Brooklyn, the summer months have been abuzz over the recent trade of Jeremy Lin, the re-signing of Joe Harris and the official end of the franchise nightmare that saw the Nets without their own first-round pick for five seasons. Still, the offseason has been filled with low-key, savvy moves — from moving Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract to securing the renewed efforts of Kenneth Faried for a season, all while recouping some of their lost draft selections in the process.
And yet, two of their most significant additions have largely flown under the radar thus far: Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis. On the surface, the pair of former Portland Trail Blazers are intriguing role players and little else, particularly so with their simple, short-term contracts. But given head coach Kenny Atkinson’s penchant for fast-paced offense and high-effort defense, there’s reason to be excited about their arrivals.
After making the difficult decision to move on from Lin (and Isaiah Whitehead) in pick-garnering deals, the Nets had a clear need for a third point guard — and, all things considered, Napier is the perfect fit. While Napier has never earned the lion share of minutes at his position, the fifth-year orchestrator made the most of his career-high 20.7 minutes per game last season in Portland. Entrenched behind the superstar backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Napier averaged 8.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals on 37.6 percent from three-point range.
And although the Nets haven’t found overall team success with Atkinson quite yet, they’ve committed to installing a modern, three-point-focused offense. Back in 2016-17, Atkinson’s first season at the helm, the Nets tossed up 31.6 three-point attempts per game — the fourth-highest clip in the NBA — and converted on just 33.8 percent of them. The following year, those trends continued to rise on both sides with 35.7 attempts — second-most — while making them at a moderately improved rate of 35.6 percent.
Considering the contributions that the Nets’ three major point guards made to those two-year totals — Spencer Dinwiddie (1.7 attempts/35.1 percent), Jeremy Lin (4.3/37.2) and D’Angelo Russell (1.9/32.4) — Napier should have the green light whenever possible. During his rookie season with the Miami HEAT in 2014-15, Napier earned the closest amount of minutes to his average last year in Portland and made 36.4 percent of his three-pointers. So, it’s been a somewhat smaller sample size for the Massachusetts-born scorer, but there could be some unearthed potential for the Nets to mine.
In the nine games that Napier started for the Trail Blazers last season, he averaged 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists — including a stat-stuffing 21-point, eight-rebound, six-assist and two-block effort in a loss against the Atlanta Hawks. Beyond that, Napier tossed four or more assists on 12 occasions and made two or more three-pointers in 18 games as well.
Give Napier minutes and he’ll make the most of them, that’s for sure.
Napier, 27, joins a backcourt occupied by just Russell and Dinwiddie, but the Nets’ desire for positional flexibility could see either player shift down to shooting guard if needed. Still, being the third point guard, even with solid long distances numbers, may appear to dampen Napier’s ceiling in 2018-19, but he’s exhibited the ability to score from all over the court. From an impressive up-and-under finish past the 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic to faking former Net Quincy Acy out of his shoes, it’s apparent that Napier isn’t only a shooter.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I chose here,” Napier said at his introductory press conference in July. “I felt like that was part of my game, positionless basketball, going up and down, getting the ball moving fast, being able to run to the corners and have somebody else handle the ball.
“I don’t need to be on the ball. I proved that when I was in Portland. I think that’s the reason why Kenny and I came to terms understanding this was a great fit for me.”
Unfortunately, it’s worth noting that the Nets have dealt with some serious injuries at the point guard position during the previous two years. Lin missed 130 games over his two short-lived seasons and Russell sat out 33 of his own following knee surgery last November. Should that type of injury bug strike Brooklyn again, they’ll have a natural replacement that fits the offensive scheme already. If the majority of Napier’s minutes come next to a playmaker like Caris LeVert — who was forced into a facilitating role after those crucial injuries in 2017-18 — then the two would form a high-energy pairing with the second unit.
And on a two-year deal worth very little against the cap, it’ll be intriguing to see how the elastic Nets deploy Napier moving forward.
While Napier’s role may be undefined for now, Davis could be in line for a career year with the Nets. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 5.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on 58.2 percent from the floor over 18.9 minutes per game. Stuck behind Jusuf Nurkic, Davis’ long-term potential was capped — just as it was for Napier — but the veteran has always been more than effective in his given role. Last season, Davis reached double-digits in rebounds on 20 occasions and topped out at 15 boards in only 26 minutes during a blowout victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Somehow, the efforts of Jarrett Allen (five), Dante Cunningham (two), Quincy Acy (one), Jahlil Okafor (one) and Timofey Mozgov (one) only combined to reach that double-digit plateau only 10 times last season — so, without a doubt, there’s a seamless, immediate role for Davis. Although Davis, 29, won’t slot in as the stretch forward the Nets have long searched for — he sports a career three-point attempt total of two — he’ll bring some much-needed fire to the Nets on the defensive end.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Nets were fairly good at defending the three-point line last season. Although opponent three-point percentage ranked toward the bottom at 36.9, the Nets held teams to just 24.5 attempts per game, the lowest total in the entire league. With the Nets constantly trying to run shooters off the arc and toward the shot-altering presence of the aforementioned Allen, it seems obvious that another plus-defender like Davis will only benefit them.
With Portland, opponents shot 43.6 percent against Davis in 2017-18 — the best mark on the roster. Nobody on the current roster, not even Allen (46 percent), came close to matching the new arrival in that regard for Brooklyn.
Additionally, the Nets allowed a massive average of 10.4 offensive rebounds per game last season, with many of those second chances leading directly to losses. Davis snagged 28.8 percent of all defensive rebounds available to him — by far a career-high — and should shore up Brooklyn’s often leaky efforts. On the flip side, the Nets tallied just 9.7 offensive rebounds of their own last year, with only Allen totaling two or more of them per game. During his final year with the Trail Blazers, Davis grabbed 2.3 per contest to go along with a convincing 13.7 OREB% — so there’s precedent here for him to help on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Davis is a bit restricted — and his former general manager Neil Olshey said as much earlier this summer.
“As productive as Ed was, there was certainly limitations in terms of what it exposed us to defensively by an elite defensive team like New Orleans.”
Although Portland had a handful of problems against a Pelicans team that ultimately swept them from the postseason, he’s not wrong about Davis. Over 78 regular season games last year, 96.2 percent of Davis’ shots came from between 0-10 feet. Now, that doesn’t exactly fit into the modern mold for a big man, but he’ll be more than serviceable for a franchise that finished 18th in points in the paint (43.8) and 20th in three-point percentage.per game.
Either way, back in January, Lillard endorsed of Davis ahead of a potentially dangerous trade deadline.
“I’m not just saying this to say it, but it don’t get no better than Ed. That’s just the truth.”
Five months later, the franchise cornerstone followed up the news of Davis’ free agency departure with a heart-broken emoji. That’s high praise from an All-NBA player, and the Nets will hope their newfound backup can bring that same hustle and rebounding edge to the Barclays Center.
Of course, if the Nets plan on pushing toward the postseason for the first time since 2015, they’ll undoubtedly need their young core to take crucial next steps — that goes without saying. With both important, impending restricted and unrestricted free agents soaking up the spotlight in Brooklyn, Napier and Davis could reach career-bests without fanfare. In Atkinson’s three-point heavy offense, Napier fits well alongside Dinwiddie, LeVert and others organically, while Davis will address many of the Nets’ weaknesses under the rim.
As of now, the Nets may end up toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference once again — but two of their new signings have the potential to change that course swiftly in 2018-19.
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