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.

VIDEOS: Michigan State’s Miles Bridges puts on another show at local summer Pro-Am

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Watching Michigan State’s Miles Bridges throw down high-level dunks in local summer pro-ams has been a good way to pass the time the last few weeks.

The 6-foot-7 Bridges has been annihilating rims all summer as he had more ridiculous dunks on Tuesday night. Playing with former Michigan State star Denzel Valentine and some of his current Spartans teammates, Bridges had more crowd-pleasing plays to add to his summer reel.

Lansing State Journal reporter James Edwards III has been on the scene for Bridges’ games all summer as he has more dunks from the future lottery pick.

Minnesota keeps in-state three-star 2018 guard Gabe Kalscheur at home

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Minnesota is keeping a big-time shooter at home as Class of 2018 shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur pledged to the Golden Gophers on Tuesday.

The 6-foot-4 Kalscheur is the third in-state prospect to pledge to head coach Richard Pitino in the Class of 2018 as he joins three-star forward Jarvis Thomas and four-star big man Daniel Oturu. The three-star Kalscheur gives Minnesota a valuable floor spacer and a winner as he’s a three-time state champion at DeLaSalle. All three of these commitments also played together with Howard Pulley in the Nike EYBL.

During this spring and summer in the Nike EYBL, Kalscheur averaged 14.9 points and shot 39 percent from three-point range as he made 61 treys in 21 games.

Pitino has certainly done a nice job of keeping local players home as he’s hoping that trend continues with upcoming in-state five-star prospects like 2018 point guard Tre Jones and 2019 forward Matthew Hurt. The Golden Gophers will have to win national recruiting battles to keep those guys home, but they’ve done a nice job of getting the other guys that they need to keep home.

North Carolina and NCAA set August hearing

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North Carolina and the NCAA have released additional responses and set the dates for a future hearing on Tuesday amid an investigation into paper classes given by the university’s African-American Studies Department.

The NCAA’s allegations center around UNC’s athletes — most notably members of football, men’s and women’s basketball teams — allegedly being guided to the fake classes in order to keep GPAs high enough to remain eligible. The fake classes typically had a high number of athletes enrolled each semester.

While North Carolina argued in May that this should be a school matter and not an NCAA matter, the NCAA responded to the matter in its belief that it has the right to investigate the classes. North Carolina is facing five top-level charges in the case with lack of institutional control among the charges.

A two-day hearing will be held with the NCAA in Nashville on August 16-17.

“The hearing is the next step in bringing closure to this longstanding issue by allowing us the opportunity to address the Committee on Infractions and present the facts,” said Joel Curran, vice chancellor of University communications. “The NCAA has requested certain individuals from the University attend the proceedings. It is standard practice for the current head coaches of programs referenced in a notice of allegations to attend. Therefore, Coaches Larry Fedora (football), Sylvia Hatchell (women’s basketball) and Roy Williams (men’s basketball) will accompany University representatives to the hearing.”

Potential top ten pick Robert Williams discusses decision to return to Texas A&M

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PHILADELPHIA — Robert Williams knew that his family could use the money that would come with being a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He also knew that he wasn’t ready — mentally, emotionally, skill-wise — to make the leap to the NBA, which is why all it took was one question from his mother, Tundra, to convince the 6-foot-9 19-year old to return to Texas A&M for his sophomore season.

“We haven’t been rich for 19 years,” Williams recalls Tundra, whom he describes as a “middle school cafeteria lady”, telling him. “What’s one more year?”

“That sealed the deal. If she’s good, I’m good,” Williams told NBC Sports as he nursed shin splints at the Under Armour All-American camp in Philadelphia last week. “My mom just wants to see me happy. I could quit basketball and go work at Burger King. If I’m happy, she’s happy.”


“Oil City made me, Vivian raised me.”


Williams may not be a household name the way that fellow members of his high school class — Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, etc. — were, but he was certainly a known quantity on basketball circles. Williams was a potential top 10 pick in last year’s draft, a 6-foot-9 big man with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and the kind of athleticism most of us can only dream about. He has elite physical tools, even by NBA standards, and his ability to protect the rim along with his versatility defensively and budding post-game makes him a tantalizing long-term project.

Casual college basketball fans aren’t going to be familiar with bigs averaging 11.9 points on a team that didn’t even get a trip to the NIT, but NBA front office personnel were well-versed in his ability.

Just a borderline top 50 prospect coming out of high school, Williams’ ranking had as much to do with where he’s from as what he can do. He was born in Oil City, Louisiana, a town of roughly a 1,000 people tucked in the Northwest corner of Louisiana, five miles from the Texas on the west side of town and 18 miles from Arkansas to the north. “There’s just really nothing there,” Williams said. Oil City was small enough that he had to move to Vivian, a town of 3,600 people nine miles away, in order to attend high school.

Glen Johnson, Texas A&M Athletics

He spent four years playing for North Caddo High, a 2A public school in Louisiana, which isn’t exactly the best high school basketball in the country, and his role on the Houston Hoops team he played with in the summer after his junior year was somewhat limited, to say the least; he was teammates with De’Aaron Fox, Jarred Vanderbilt (a top 15 player in the Class of 2017) and Carsen Edwards, who started at the point for Purdue as a freshman. Combine that with the 25 pounds of muscle that he added to his frame, and what you have is a player that went from being a pogo stick that got pushed around on a team full of studs to a grown man that did the pushing and proved himself capable of playing a role that has value in the NBA.

“I went to Nike Camp, but I wasn’t that high of a recruit,” Williams said. “I was like No. 60 I think. It’s weird because I’ve never had this much ‘fame’, I guess is the word.”

“People knew who I was [in Vivian], but just because I was a people person. I was also always bigger than everyone.”

There weren’t many that expected Williams to have the season that he had as a freshman, averaging 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks in just 25 minutes a night. Even fewer expected him to return to Texas A&M once he caught the eye of NBA scouts, but head coach Billy Kennedy wasn’t one of them.

“Only because he told us,” Kennedy said with a chuckle, as if he knew just how lucky he and his staff are to be getting a second season with a talent like this. “We felt that during the year. But you never know until the end. We wanted to see him go through the whole process, but the cool thing is the kid made a decision and he did what was best for him.”


“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”


For Williams, the decision to return was two-fold. He knew that he wasn’t yet the player that he wants to be, and getting drafted as a dunker, a shot-blocker and an athlete can get a player pigeon-holed. “In the NBA,” Williams reasoned, “once you get there, what you are is what you are. I don’t want to be stuck in that jumping, that dunking position. I’m not necessarily saying I want to be able to play the two or the three, but I want to expand and show that I can sometimes push it and make a jump shot.”

“Rebounding, jumping, dunking. That’s been my game. That’s gets you paid well. But I know I have more. I want to be able to knock down a corner three. I’m not saying that I need to be coming off of screens and pulling, but I want to be able to knock down that shot and prove I’m able to get a rebound and start a fast break.”

He knew that it would take a lot of hard work and time in the gym this offseason to get to that point, and that’s where the second part of this comes into the equation. Williams knew that he wasn’t ready to be a professional yet, that he wanted to be able to enjoy life and basketball as a college kid for another year.

“People don’t understand that once you get to that level, it’s a job. It’s a business,” Williams said. “It’s not high school, it’s not even college, you’re competing for your job every time you go play.”

“Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t ready.”

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That didn’t necessarily sit well with everyone in Williams’ circle — specifically, Williams says his father wanted him to go to the NBA — because they all know the risk. Blake Griffin, who went from being a projected top ten pick as a freshman to the No. 1 overall pick as a sophomore, is the outlier. The likes of Ivan Rabb, Perry Jones III and Jared Sullinger tend to be the norm. When a player doesn’t take a step forward in his second season in college, the flaws are nitpicked instead of the potential being touted, and that’s to say nothing of the potential for devastating injury. For a player like Williams, who thrives on his athleticism, a torn ACL or a ruptured Achilles’ this season could be devastating to his earning power.

He knows all of that, and, Williams says, once he made his choice, the people closest to him rallied around him. There was some negativity, people calling his dumb for passing up on the guaranteed millions that come with being a first round pick, but for the most part, the feedback he heard was reassuring.

“You gotta grind now.”

“You made your decision, you made your bed, now you have to lay in it.”

“You know what you got to do.”

And that’s part of where being ready for the NBA comes into play.

Ask Williams what he needs to do to be successful at the next level, to prove that he can be more than just an athlete, and he’ll tell you that it’s developing his perimeter skills. Making corner threes and trail threes. Improving his handle and his footwork to the point that he is a threat as a face-up four. But if you ask Kennedy what the next step for Williams is, this is his answer: “Just getting to where he’s working out more, learning how to work at a higher level, and that’s something that he’s gotten better at.”

Williams didn’t need to work all that hard to dominate in high school, not with his physical gifts and not with the level of competition that he was facing. The same can mostly be said his his time as a freshman in the SEC. As Mike Schmitz, a scout working for Draft Express and ESPN, put it, Williams “is very much living off his elite physical tools.”

As the saying goes, you don’t know what hard work is until you see someone working harder than you, and there is no better role model for Williams than junior center Tyler Davis, who has streamlined what was once a 300 pound frame into a chiseled, 260-pound rock. He has “the best work ethic I’ve ever seen,” Williams says, and that’s rubbing off on him. Williams says he’s working out two or three times a day, doing conditioning with the team at 6 am before heading off to the gym at 8 am to work on his stroke — form-shooting, making 25 shots from each spot out to the foul line; step-in mid-range jumpers; trail threes — and closing the day with pickup or more skill-work in the afternoon.

The way he sees it, he can’t control injuries — although he has taken out an insurance policy on the off-chance he does something catastrophic — but he can control the work he puts in. Put another way, he is the one that will determine where he ends up. “My mindset,” Williams said, “is as long as you put in the work, results will come.”

And maybe those results will get him some notoriety on campus at a football school.

“Some people recognize me on campus, but it’s all football at A&M,” he said. “They say hi, ask for a picture, but people actually think I’m a mean guy. They don’t understand, I’m a people person! I like people!”

So say hi to Williams if you see him this year.

You won’t have a chance to do so much longer.

Texas A&M Athletics

VIDEO: Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval get in on #DriveByDunkChallenge

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Trevon Duval, the point guard that will finally replace Tyus Jones at Duke, and Grayson Allen added their flare on the #DriveByDunkChallenge, as Allen throws a picture perfect alley-oop through the sun-roof of the car Duval is driving:

This is solid work, but I still think Scott Cross has the best #DriveByDunkChallenge performance in the collegiate ranks. John Calipari’s effort is solid, but pretty awkward. He shouldn’t be running or jumping.