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Shabazz Napier Out of LeBron James’ Shadow

Shabazz Napier may be known for LeBron James’ pre-draft endorsement, but he’s working to carve his own NBA identity.

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For a while last summer, it looked Shabazz Napier might be the guy who kept LeBron James parked in South Beach, especially after Miami pulled off a draft-day trade for the standout guard apparently at the request of James himself.

There were rumors such a thing might happen in the days leading up to the draft, that by bringing in a rookie whom James publicly lauded during the previous year’s NCAA tournament – won by Napier’s UConn Huskies – Pat Riley might slightly improve his chances of keeping the greatest player alive in Florida.

Everybody knows how that worked out, but whether Napier had played alongside James or not, the expectations still would have been mighty in a rookie season after having received the four-time MVP’s stamp of approval in the year following a national championship in college.

But Napier, who is now with the Orlando Magic, never put much stock in James’ public endorsement.

“I didn’t do anything with those expectations; that was everybody else,” Napier told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t feed into it at all. [LeBron] said what he said, and I think everybody else read into it the wrong way.”

It was, at the time, a heck of a story. However, Napier thinks it was blown out of proportion.

“I don’t think it was that he wanted to play with me or that the Miami HEAT had to trade for me to get him to stay,” Napier said. “That was overblown. I just thought he enjoyed watching me playing in the tournament. That was it.”

In retrospect, seeing how it all worked out, it’s sort of wild that anybody would believe a rookie point guard – no matter how high he was selected – could be the difference maker in an elite free agent staying or leaving.

For Napier, though, it was never anywhere near as big a deal as it was for the media and fans.

“He went back home, which was great for his city, and I was in Miami doing my own process,” Napier said. “I stayed level-headed. It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, that’s the greatest player in the country and he wants me!’ It was just, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ I never really thought anything of it.”

Now, Napier is playing for his second team in as many years and is still trying to carve out a niche for himself as an NBA point guard. He’s only played 17 minutes through three games this young season, but Orlando is a young squad with plenty of opportunities under new head coach Scott Skiles.

Napier believes his experience in Miami as a rookie will help him tremendously as he tries to break into this Magic rotation.

“Just to be around that team and see the championship pedigree that they all have, that mentality that they all have, it’s great to have that in your first year,” Napier said. “It shows you the way it’s supposed to be, how you stay on top, because there are going to be people clawing at your collar, trying to grab you down. Watching Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Luol Deng and others every single day was something I appreciated.”

Now, though, it’s about getting into Coach Skiles’ good graces and proving to the world he was worth the lofty praise heaped upon him heading into that 2014 NBA Draft.

“The biggest knock I get is that I’m small, but no one’s taller than the last man standing,” Napier said. “I just have to continue to improve and control what I can. I’m working out every single day, so whether I play or don’t play, I’m giving it everything I’ve got. I always believe in myself, even when other people doubt me.”

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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