Unlike so many of the Nets Sean Marks’ team has brought to Brooklyn, Shabazz Napier is not a reclamation project. Instead, the Nets just need him to build on his recent progress.
After a slow start in the NBA, with disappointing stints with the Heat and Magic, Napier developed nicely as the Blazers’ sixth man — and Damian Lillard’s back-up. But the scrappy 6’1” point guard brings more than just ball-handling, court vision and an improving 3-point shot.
Napier, who turned 27 Sunday, has a history of winning ... and speaking his mind, whether it’s directed at the NCAA or LeBron James. He should do just fine in New York. The winning started early.
He was Kemba Walker’s running-mate during the UConn’s 2011 National Championship, and then three years later, the Boston native spearheaded a return to the Final Four where he was named Most Outstanding Player, scoring 22 points in the championship game vs. Kentucky ... and criticizing the NCAA in a famous post-game about how he and others had “hungry nights.”
After that, Napier was shouted out by none other than LeBron James.
No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014
My favorite player in the draft! #Napier— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 27, 2014
That’s all that Pat Riley and the Miami Heat needed, catering to the King’s desires. The Heat landed Napier at No. 24 overall on Draft Night. While Riley delivered on part of the deal, James left South Beach, returning to Cleveland, leaving Napier and Dwyane Wade in the dust.
Napier counterpunched by unfollowing James and deleting his tweets directed at arguably the greatest player in NBA history.
In any event, Napier now steps into a world that’s a bit similar to what he left in Portland. In Portland, it was Lillard and C.J. McCollum. In Brooklyn, it’s D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie (since Jeremy Lin, Isaiah Whitehead and Milton Doyle are all gone as back-up point guard options.)
Between the Heat, Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers, the now 27-year-old journeyman averaged 4.3 points and 1.8 assists through his first three seasons, averaging only 13.4 minutes in 159 games played. Last season in an elevated role, Napier posted career numbers while backing-up Lillard.
He logged 20.7 minutes per contest, a career high, recording 8.7 points, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 37.6% from three and 42% from the floor in his 74 outings, also a career high. He also got to the foul line 1.9 times per showing, hitting 84.1% from the charity stripe, by far a new personal best.
In fact, Napier has scored 15 points per 36 minutes in each of his last two seasons, but had a bit of a dropoff last season, dishing out a career-low 3.5 assists per 36, down significantly down from 4.7 in 2016-17.
More importantly for Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson, when Napier started in place of Lillard, something that happened 10 times last season, he rose to the occasion, averaging 15.0 points, 4.2 assists and 4.4 assists. In one three-game stretch, he scored 65 points, shooting better than 50 percent overall and from deep while hitting 12-of-15 free throws.
He also brings some excitement. Take a look at his top plays from 2017-18. It reads as prototypical quality modern back-up point guard production.
10. Rips fellow Puerto Rican J.J. Barea at half court for a one-handed dunk. (37.5 inch max vertical; 6’3” wingspan.)
9. More defense into offense, this time it results in a three-pointer to beat the third quarter buzzer. (Worth noting that Napier was on the floor with Lillard. He can play with Dinwiddie and or Russell simultaneously).
8. Looks difficult, but if you watched him at UConn, it’s natural.
7. That’s what Brooklyn needs from an extra PG.
6. 8.25-inch hand length; 8.5-inch hand width.
5. Never gives up on the play. (Brooklyn Grit?)
4. Net Income’s favorite.
3. Can breakdown a defense, even the Spurs defense.
2. Maybe this was the plan all along? (Sorry, Quincy.)
1. That wouldn’t have happened to D’Lo.
The speedy guard notably poured on a season-high 23 points on an NBA on TNT broadcast during that three-game stretch in December of this past season, when he uplifted the Trail Blazers, who trailed by as many as 18, to a win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Napier had 15 points and a trio of steals if the fourth quarter.
The acquisition shouldn’t have been a surprise. Lin’s inability to stay healthy, along with a hefty expiring salary number of over $12 million, contributed to his early departure in Brooklyn. Whitehead and Doyle’s roles have been in-question since last season, and regarding the former, the Nets were able to land plenty upon the exchange.
Does this open the door for the Nets to deal Dinwiddie with his value at an arguable peak position as the organization’s only NBA Award Finalist and best bargain in the NBA? (He’s set to rack in $1.66 million in 2018-19 before hitting unrestricted free agency).
It could, but it probably shouldn’t. D’Angelo Russell has struggled with knee injuries for the last two seasons, and he’s also heading into free agency, albeit restricted, in 2019.
Russell’s missed 53 of a possible 164 games the last two years after playing 80-of-82 as a rookie. We saw what happened when he (and Lin) missed significant time last season. Given the Nets’ recent injury woes, Napier should be a significant contributor in the Nets’ rotation, perhaps even as a lead guard if Dinwiddie and Russell ever start together again.
After Portland’s first round playoff exit this past spring, Napier addressed the media in an exit interview where he reflected on the season he had and was asked about his future.
“Those are things I can’t control,” he said when asked about his pending free agency.
“Those are things I can’t control,” he repeated when asked if he preferred to be back in Portland. “I’ve been in the league for four years now. If you can count the trade from Charlotte to Miami (on draft night), I’ve been on four different teams. This is a business, so at the end of the day, those are the things that I understood coming into the league and (I have) a very well understanding now because of playing for three different organizations, it’s just something you can’t control.”
Like we said, outspoken.
Of course, his move is likely to end his relationship with Stumptown Coffee, a local brand that gave him an opportunity to show off his acting ... and pouring skills.