Shabazz Napier has been just what the Brooklyn Nets wanted him to be when they inked him to a two-year deal this past off-season. He’s been backing up both guard positions and when his number has been called, he’s done well.
Coming off a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers last season, he has not missed a step with Brooklyn this season, nearly matching or exceeding numbers he reached last season in Portland. He’s quietly averaging 7.5 points in 15 minutes per game and shooting what is easily his career best from deep ... 42.9 percent.
All this despite being a bit of an anomaly in the Nets recent history: a small (if quick) guard. Not to mention that he’s fighting for minutes not just among the team’s guards, but among their wings as well.
He was DNP’d back in early November as the Nets tried to integrate DeMarre Carroll back into the rotation.
“I think it’s tough to play more than 10,” Kenny Atkinson said back then. “I don’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility. These are the tough decisions because Shabazz played well for us. It’s just that we want to integrate DeMarre and figure out where he is and how he can help us.”
The next game, he played 20 against Golden State and scored 14. Of late, with Caris LeVert injured, the 27-year-old has been on the court more often, 26 against Miami, 18 vs. Washington and 17 against both Dallas and Minnesota.
He makes up for his lack of height with toughness ... and a lot of experience. Napier grew up in inner city Boston, then went on to UConn where he won two national championships as a freshman and a senior, winning the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award as a senior.
Moreover, he knows what it’s like to back up top guards, whether it was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum with the Trail Blazers, or D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie with the Nets. He understands what his role is, always has because of his unselfishness, as he told Michael Grady of YES recently.
“Growing up, I was not able to score the ball like that,” Napier told Grady. “I was literally dribbling the ball so I was really excited to watch certain players play and see how much they were into the game. It is easy to put the ball in the basket but to me it’s those who are in love with the game and give everything they got.”
Intangibles, like toughness, he said are his calling cards, not hoisting up shots. (He told Grady his two role models are Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant simply because of their toughness.)
That and his competitiveness impressed the Nets. When on the floor for Brooklyn, he is very vocal on play calls on both ends of the floor and as he did growing up and in Portland focuses his play around his teammates.
And as a player who’s been on the court in post-season the last two years in Portland, Napier has one main goal in mind: make the playoffs.
“This summer, I have put in a tremendous amount of work and I am just excited to show it off and bring this team to a playoff appearance,” he told Grady.
The fifth year guard is also under contract past this season, unlike Dinwiddie and Russell who can become free agents this summer, Napier has a two-year deal with a $1.84 million team option in June. (Like Joe Harris, Napier’s deal is front loaded so that the Nets can preserve as much cap space as possible for next season.)
So far, the Nets seem happy with Napier. He’s played well within their system and as Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson know from the first two years with the Nets, you can never have too many point guards.