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NBA Daily: Shabazz Napier Leading the Timberwolves’ Lethal Bench

Shabazz Napier was never worried about who he would play for this summer, so the point guard only worried about what he could control. Douglas Farmer examines what that has meant for both Napier and Minnesota this season.

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Updated 11 months ago on
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No offense to Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving or D’Angelo Russell, but Shabazz Napier was fully prepared to treat each of them as the average Joe Shmoe.

At various points throughout the summer, Napier was set to back up each of those top-tier point guards, though the Curry assignment lasted but a day. But the 28-year-old never worried about where he would end up nor who was in front of him.

“I learned a long time ago from my mother, you can control what you can control,” Napier, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, said Sunday. “Whether it was as back up for Joe Shmoe, just control what you can control.”

By no means does the Timberwolves’ starting point guard, Jeff Teague, compare to Joe Schmo — nor do Curry, Irving or Russell — but Napier’s thought rings true for a number of players. It also allowed him to handle a summer of cross-country movement without losing any sleep. Napier, in his own words, was headed to bed when he first heard of the trade that sent him from the Brooklyn Nets to the Golden State Warriors; the idea of joining the perennial title contender, at least at the time, didn’t keep him up.

“I went right to sleep,” Napier said. “It wasn’t something I was thinking too much of, but it was definitely — I guess you can think about it at the time, but me, I was just like, if I’m there, I’m there.”

However, Napier, along with Treveon Graham, was quickly rerouted to Minnesota, where he serves as the leader to the second unit that has spurred the team to a 3-0 start. Plus-minus are easily manipulated, especially this early in the season, but it is hard to ignore that the Timberwolves’ three best in the statistic have come from the bench: Napier (+12.7 per game), Josh Okogie (15.0) and Jake Layman (13.3) have done more than their fair share thus far. However, until Sunday’s 116-109 victory against the Miami HEAT, Napier’s contributions had come mostly via assist, not his typical shot-making.

Napier finished with 12 points and, even after he notched just two assists in the victory, he has averaged 6.0 assists per game this season. Whatever his contributions, Napier has moved the second unit along and he has done so rapidly.

“He’s been able to orchestrate the offense,” said Timberwolves’ head coach Ryan Saunders prior to Sunday’s matchup. “It’s not easy in terms of telling a team, telling a point guard, we want to play fast but we want you to keep us organized, too.

“He’s done a really nice job with that,” Saunders said. “I’m not worried about his shot, that’s who he’s been his whole career. I remember watching him at UConn; he’ll make shots. I’m just happy with where he is in terms of running the offense.”

Two hours later, Napier used a few trips to the free-throw line to get his shot going. He went 6-of-6 from the line to finish with the season-high 12 points against the HEAT. They were under-the-radar buckets, but they came when the Timberwolves’ offense stagnated. Both Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns mentioned Napier’s points, specifically, afterward, and said they were just enough to keep Minnesota close until the offense regained its footing.

In Napier’s mind, that work began on the other end of the court.

“Our game is to run and increase the pace,” Napier said. “The best way to do that is to get stops, get some disruptions. That second unit, along with the first unit, is able to do that.

“With the second unit, we’ve been able to push and just go.”

In one specific instance, Timberwolves forward Noah Vonlehs help defense forced an errant pass from Miami guard Tyler Herro, which Napier collected and immediately moved up the court to a streaking Jake Layman. The transition layup would have been the easiest bucket of Layman’s night if not for a Kelly Olynyk challenge that resulted in an and-one opportunity.

A focus on defense and moving the ball may not have been the exact role Gersson Rosas, Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations, had in mind when he traded for Napier. But picking up contributing players, for next to no cost, is a major part of the sustainable franchise building process that Rosas has preached. The Timberwolves chose not to match the three-year, $26.5 million offer sheet Tyus Jones received from the Memphis Grizzlies, but that opened the door for Napier.

He has never averaged more than 2.6 assists across a season. But Napier’s game has looked different this season; continuing on that trend could prove crucial to the Timberwolves as they look to build on their strong start.

Graham moved with Napier from the Nets, to the Warriors and now to the Timberwolves, and he’s seen first hand how Napier’s game and approach to the season, that focus on defense and passing, have changed.

“It’s more his leadership on the court,” Graham said. “… He always had it in him, but he’s got the opportunity to show it here. He’s going to make the best of the opportunity.”

That leadership may not have developed in a limited role behind Irving or Curry. But Minnesota needed Napier to take charge of their bench and, in the 20.3 minutes he has averaged through three games, Napier has proved up to the task.

Ask him, and Napier will deflect to every other member of the second unit. Ask about the influx of assists at the expense of points, and the six-year veteran will ignore all stats but one, one that, it just so happens, the Timberwolves have racked up this season.

“Once that buzzer is over and my team is up, that’s what matters.”

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Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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