Comparing Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker is unfair but inevitable

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NEW YORK — For Shabazz Napier, there’s no sense in fighting it. The comparisons are coming whether he likes it or not. That’s simply what is going to happen when an All-American point guard carries a team on a deep run through March three years after another All-American point guard, Kemba Walker, carried the same program on a deep run through March.

Fair or not — it’s not, for the record — they are going to come flooding in as we get closer and closer to college basketball’s biggest stage, and for now, it seems as if Napier has accepted that fact even if he’s unlikely to embrace it.

“That’s for you guys to say. I don’t know. I’m just here trying to play basketball,” Napier said after his No. 7 seeded Huskies won the East Regional title with a 60-54 victory over No. 4 Michigan State on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. “Of course I’m going to be compared to him because what he did when he was here was just tremendous. It’s never going to be done again. I’m not out there trying to replace what he did.”

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Napier, who hails from Boston, is right in one respect: What Walker did may never be replicated. He led a UConn team that was stocked with freshmen and sophomores to five wins in five days en route to a Big East tournament title and followed that up with six wins in three weeks, the last of which was a 53-41 victory over Butler in the national title game. That’s 11 wins in less than four weeks in the month of March.

That’s unheard of, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that Walker ended up being the No. 7 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. It’s the single biggest reason that he will go down as arguably the most popular UConn Husky in the history of the storied program that Jim Calhoun built.

And it’s an impossible standard to try and hold Napier up to, especially when a very valid argument can be made that getting this UConn team to the Final Four is a more impressive accomplishment than Walker leading that 2011 team to a title. But at least we are comparing apples to apples here. What the duo has been able to accomplish on the court is at least similar, whereas their demeanors and skill sets differ substantially.

Walker is a freak of an athlete, one of the quickest and most athletic point guards in the NBA these days. He blows by people, using his jump shot as a counter to keep defenses from sloughing off of him. Napier’s game is much more crafty. I think he can dunk, but I’ve never actually seen him dunk in a game. He’s quick, but he doesn’t have sprinter speed. His biggest skill is his ability to keep an defender off balance and read which way his opponent is leaning. His biggest strength is his basketball IQ and savviness.

Walker is as gregarious as a kid can come, blessed with the kind of larger-than-life personality that can only be bred in the Bronx. His smile is infectious and his charm is contagious. Napier is quieter, more introverted. His approach to the game is workmanlike, and what defines him, as Calhoun put is, is “his incredible self-belief” and his ability to instill that belief in others.

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“These kids would follow him across the desert for a drink of water,” Calhoun said. “As much as any single other thing, Shabazz led this team. You could see him talking to them. His swagger, his positive arrogance about how good they are translates to every other player out there.”

That wasn’t an easy thing for Napier to develop, either.

He couldn’t have taken over the program at a more difficult point in time.

Napier was a freshman on the 2011 team that won the title. He was the sidekick to Walker in the back court, the point guard that allowed Calhoun to use Walker off the ball. He played a major role in bringing home UConn’s third championship banner and he was expected to take over the role that Walker vacated when he left for the NBA. Throw in the fact that UConn had a roster that included Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith in Napier’s sophomore year, and UConn entered the preseason as a consensus top three team.

And it all went to hell.

The Huskies were a mess during Big East play, eventually flaming out of the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed. A lot of the blame got pinned on Napier that season. He was supposed to be the leader, and he wasn’t leading. As the saying goes, a point guard’s most important stat is his winning percentage. The issue, however, was that Napier simply didn’t know how to lead. He didn’t know how to differentiate between yelling and motivating. He didn’t know how to react to players laughing off a loss. He didn’t yet understand that every person is going to handle losing a different way, and while every loss was, for him, as bad as it could get, he couldn’t grasp that it was possible to be as competitive as he was without being as demonstratively distraught after a disappointing performance.

“He wasn’t mature enough,” Calhoun said. “He had to fine tune who Shabazz was. He tried to lead at a time when he couldn’t lead. Following Kemba Walker? That’s a tough act to follow. He wasn’t as good sophomore year when I coached as he should have been. Last year under Kevin he started to blossom a little bit. This year, that great Shabazz gave himself to his teammates.”

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Shabazz long ago climbed out of the shadow cast by Kemba and his national title. He did it when he led last year’s team to 20 wins despite the fact that there was no tournament waiting for them as the end of the season. He did it when he turned himself into an All-American this season. He did it with all of the big shots that he’s made throughout his career.

He may look like Walker from afar, and he may end up accomplishing the same thing, but the two differ as much as their accents.

“A lot of the things I do is what he did, because I learned from him,” Napier said. “He made it there, but I’m just out here trying to be myself and create my own path.”

There is one thing that Napier indisputably has in common with Walker, however: When he leaves UConn, he is going to be a tough act to follow.

Reports: Duke’s Frank Jackson to declare for draft

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Frank Jackson will declare for the draft but will not be signing with an agent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Previous reports had indicated that Jackson “planned” to return to school, and that still may end up proving true. But the combination of Trevon Duval potentially enrolling at Duke combined with the fact that there is zero downside to going through the draft process, it makes sense for Jackson to declare.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points and shot 39.5 percent from three. He’s projected as a mid-first round pick in 2018 by Draft Express, but at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to play the two in the NBA and has yet to prove he can be a point guard.

Jackson is the fourth Duke player to declare, following Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Luke Kennard. All three signed with an agent. Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are both returning to school.

VIDEO: Top 2018 recruits Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford go head-to-head at adidas

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This weekend is the first live evaluation period of the spring recruiting calendar as college coaches from all over the country are scouting (and babysitting) the top recruits in the Class of 2018 and 2019.

Friday night the adidas Gauntlet in Dallas opened with a marquee matchup of two star players as five-star forward Zion Williamson and five-star guard Romeo Langford went head-to-head in what should be one of the best games of the spring.

Most scouting services have Williamson and Langford as the No. 2 and No. 3 overall prospects in the Class of 2018 as the duo didn’t disappoint in front of the huge crowd in Fort Worth.

Williamson helped his team to a win with 26 points and seven rebounds while Langford had 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. You’ll be hearing plenty about both of these guys over the next few months as both are still wide open in the recruting process.

(H/t: Ball is Life)

Report: Coppin State hires Juan Dixon as new head coach

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Coppin State has hired former Maryland star guard Juan Dixon to be its next head coach, according to a report from Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun.

The 38-year-old Dixon is best known for leading Maryland to the 2002 national championship as he was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four that year. Now Dixon will have a chance to lead a Division I program for the first time.

Dixon spent seven years in the NBA and also played professionally in Europe before joining the Maryland coaching staff in 2013 as a special assistant to head coach Mark Turgeon. Not retained by Maryland after the 2015-16 season, Dixon took the head coaching job for the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia last season as the Division II program finished only  3-25.

Coppin State finished last season with an 8-24 record after losing its first 12 games of the season. While Dixon will generate some positive local buzz given his background, he’s going to have an uphill battle trying to rebuild that program.

Nebraska scores important Class of 2017 commitment from four-star guard Thomas Allen

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Nebraska landed an important commitment from the Class of 2017 on Friday as four-star guard Thomas Allen is heading to Lincoln next season.

The 6-foot-1 guard is considered the No. 99 overall prospect by Rivals in the national Class of 2017 rankings as Allen was previously committed to N.C. State before head coach Mark Gottfried was fired.

A scorer with a good amount of skill, Allen has a chance to come in and make an immediate impact at Nebraska as he can play a bit on or off the ball. Allen should help offset the loss of senior Tai Webster in the Husker backcourt.

Allen joins wing Nana Akenten in Nebraska’s Class of 2017 recruiting efforts.

North Carolina lands four-star Class of 2017 big man Garrison Brooks

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North Carolina pulled in a late Class of 2017 commitment to begin the weekend as the Tar Heels secured a pledge from four-star Class of 2017 big man Garrison Brooks.

The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Brooks was previously committed to Mississippi State, but he was granted his release this spring to explore other opportunities.

The Tar Heels pounced as they’re getting a low-post threat who could develop into a potential double-double threat. A solid rebounder who isn’t afraid to play with physicality, Brooks has a chance to earn some immediate rotation minutes with seniors like Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks exhausting their eligibility.

Brooks is regarded as the No. 120 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, according to Rivals, as he is a four-star prospect. The native of Auburn, Alabama joins a North Carolina recruiting class that includes point guard Jalek Felton, shooting guard Andrew Platek and big men Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley.