Shabazz Napier had to learn how to lead. He did, and UConn has their fourth title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — UConn won the 2014 national title on Monday night, knocking off Kentucky and their half a dozen lottery picks 60-54 behind 22 points from Shabazz Napier, an incredible feat when you consider where this program was just two years ago.

Their Hall of Fame head coach, Jim Calhoun, was retiring a year after he got caught up in a recruiting scandal involving Nate Miles and a year before the Huskies were to be banned from the postseason for poor APR scores that stemmed from Calhoun’s tenure. They were lost in the shuffle of conference realignment, getting blacklisted from the ACC and relegated to the American, and they had just watched four of their best players bolt from the program after going from the preseason No. 1 team in the country in 2011-2012 to an opening round exit in the 2012 tournament.

The UConn program was left for dead.

Too bad no one told Napier.

He took control of this team — of this program, really — and carried them on the most unlikely of national title runs. “He’s taken ownership of his team,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “I call him my unpaid coach, and that’s for a reason, because he has a coaching mentality. Me and him think the same. I couldn’t think of another point guard that I really give the keys to and let drive the bus, because he does it wonderfully.”

And to think, just two years ago he couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to him.

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“I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person.”

That’s what Napier told reporters back in 2012 after the Huskies had dropped back-to-back January games to Seton Hall and Rutgers. “The guys don’t listen to me,” he said. “It sucks.”

That same season, UConn lost to Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. In the locker room after the game, as Napier was talking to reporters, he saw his teammates laughing and smiling, turning and punching his locker as hard as he could. “See, this is the [stuff] I’m talking about.”

What a difference two years makes.

According to Jim Calhoun, this team “would follow him across the desert for a drink of water.” Rodney Purvis told NBCSports.com that “if Shabazz said, ‘Come on guys, let’s go jump off a cliff,’ the guys would probably follow him there.”

What changed?

“He didn’t know what to say then,” Calhoun said. “He was thinking the right things and saying the wrong things, because he was trying to be Kemba [Walker]. When he found out who Shabazz was, good things happened for him. Some of it’s maturity, some of it’s understanding how to talk to them.”

“He was handed the reins of a team that didn’t have any seniors and unexpectedly won a national championship. That’s a really hard thing to be thrown in front of,” Tyler Olander said. Olander is one of three seniors on this UConn team that played on the 2011 and 2014 title winning teams. “It’s not easy to take that over and become this type of player. [Kemba] was a National Player of the Year. He led a team to a national championship. That’s not something that’s done every day.”

Napier has a dominant personality, particularly on the basketball court. He wants to be in control. He wants to be the guy that has the ball in his hands. He wants to be the coach on the floor. You can see it when he plays. He’s directing his teammates where to go, he’s calling out sets, he’s calling out for ball-screens. When he was a sophomore, the guys on the floor didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t want to be told what to do.

Now? His teammates listened.

“When you go through a lot it teaches you how to be a man,” Napier said. “Sometimes you go through the ups and sometimes you go through the downs. You’ve just got to learn from it.”

Part of the reason he’s become a commanding presence in this program is because the success that he’s had on the court speaks for itself. He’s not some sophomore stepping on toes as he tries to make a name for himself. He’s the guy that stayed through the APR sanctions, that carried a team without a postseason to play for despite making a decision to stay at UConn that could have hurt his career in the long run. He’s paid his dues. He’s earned the right to yell at a teammate when they make a mistake. His track record speaks for itself.

But it’s more than that. He looks out for the younger guys off the floor. He sets an example with everything he does, from the way he prepares for a game to the way that he prepares for a test.

“He’s a professional with everything he does,” Olander said. “He eats well, he gets the proper amount of sleep, he takes care of his body, he does all the right things on and off the court, attends class, does school work. It’s all the little things. He sets an example with everything he does.”

“He was like my best friend,” Purvis said. “I just hung around him all the time, tried to pick his brain and pick up on the things he does. He’s a great player, but he’s more a great person. He’s an all-american in everything he does.”

“He’s one of those guys who’d rather be respected than liked. He doesn’t care if you like him, but you’re going to respect him.” They did.

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“I wanna get everybody’s attention right quick,” Napier said to the UConn fans that made up a fraction of the NCAA title-game record crowd of 79,238 as he was being interviewed by Jim Nantz after the UConn’s win. “Ladies and Gentlemen, take a look at the Hungry Huskies.”

“This is what happened when you banned us.”

That was planned.

Napier admitted as much afterwards. He laid in his bed in his hotel room in Dallas on Sunday night thinking about what he was going to tell Jim Nantz 24 hours later. And what he settled on had nothing to do with what UConn did in the tournament and nothing to do with the game that he had just played. In his One Shining Moment, with all of America’s sports fans watching him, Napier took a shot at the NCAA for a punishment that was handed down 18 months ago. He took up for his guys for something that rest of the country had forgotten about, for something that very few people even care about anymore.

That resonates within a locker room.

But what’s more telling is that Napier spent the night figuring out exactly what he was going to say to Jim Nantz because, as he put it, “I knew we were going to win.”

It wasn’t the first time that he had made that promise.

“We’re going to be the team that’s holding up that trophy,” Napier told his teammates after the Huskies lost a game at home to Louisville on national television as their head coach was ejected. “I promise you that,” he said.

“And it’s so surreal that it actually happened,” he told reporters on Monday. “We were on the podium, and I told everybody, ‘Look at me, what did I tell y’all when we lost against Louisville at home?'”

“I was like, ‘We’re the best team in the country. It’s not the Shabazz show. I don’t need to get recognized.’ They understand that It’s the University of Connecticut Huskies. We went out there and proved it.”

Washington lands four-star forward Hameir Wright

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Washington and new head coach Mike Hopkins snagged another talented piece on Saturday as four-star forward Hameir Wright committed to the Huskies.

The reigning New York State Gatorade Player of the Year, Wright had was originally supposed to be a member of the Class of 2018, but he will skip his scheduled season at Brewster Academy to join Washington for the 2017-18 season.

The 6-foot-7 Wright was being pursued by a solid list of high-major programs this summer as Washington was able to land another talented player from upstate New York for next season. Wright joins wing Naz Carter, the nephew of Jay Z, as recent commits who can come in and play next season for the Huskies.

Hopkins has used his former connections as a Syracuse assistant to get his roster two immediate pieces that could be four-year players. It’s a really positive start for the first-year head coach as he has a lot of holes to fill on the Washington roster.

VIDEO: Luke Maye continues hitting big shots this summer for North Carolina

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Luke Maye became a local hero during North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA tournament run after making the game-winning jumper to get past Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Maye has received standing ovations in class, he’s been recognized at baseball games and he’s become a celebrity since returning to Chapel Hill.

The legend of Maye will continue to grow after the junior forward knocked down another game-winning jumper against former North Carolina players during the summer Roy Williams Basketball Camp.

With a sizable camp crowd watching, Maye knocked down a top-of-the-key three last week to get the win. Theo Pinson knows the shot is good right after it leaves Maye’s hands and watching his reaction might be my favorite part of this.

North Carolina is hoping that Maye’s confidence and shooting carries into next season since they’ll need him to play a much larger part with the departures of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley.

(H/t: Jeremy Harson)

Clemson lands three-star Class of 2018 guard John Newman

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Clemson was able to land a commitment from three-star Class of 2018 shooting guard John Newman on Friday night.

The 6-foot-4 Newman selected the Tigers over his other finalists that included Providence, Virginia and Wake Forest. Newman is coming off of a solid spring with Team CP3 in the Nike EYBL and he also had a good showing at the NBPA Top 100 Camp last week at the University of Virginia.

An aggressive perimeter threat who can score or distribute, Newman can not only put up points in bunches but he’s also pretty efficient in terms of his shooting splits.

Newman put up 11.5 points per game at Top 100 Camp on 55 percent shooting and 53 percent three-point shooting as he looked like one of the more confident scorers in the camp.

The first commitment for Clemson in the Class of 2018, Newman is an important start for what could be a very big recruiting class for the Tigers.

Notre Dame gets commitment from four-star guard

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Mike Brey’s 2018 recruiting class just got stronger Thursday.

Notre Dame added its second four-star prospect, Robby Carmody, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pennsylvania.

“The recruiting process has been a humbling and exciting experience!” Carmody wrote on social media. “My sincerest appreciation goes out to all the coaches and schools that invested time getting to know me throughout the process.

“Today I am blessed and excited to announce that I am committing to the University of Notre Dame!”

Carmody, who just recently visited the Fighting Irish and Purdue,  joins Prentiss Hubb as the first two pieces of Brey’s 2018 class. Hubb is a 6-foot-2 guard from Washington, DC and a top-75 ranked player nationally.

The Irish will need some major pieces in 2018 after losing the likes of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after this upcoming season. Notre Dame has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three seasons, making two Elite Eights during that time.

2018 NBA Mock Draft: It’s never too early …

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With the 2017 NBA Draft coming to a close, it’s time to take a look at the 2018 NBA Draft and some of the best, most influential potential pros in the sport next season. 

Here is a first round mock draft for 2018. In a year, we can look back on this and realize just how naive we all were.

Scott Phillips contributed to this story.

1. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri, Fr.: The 6-foot-9 former Washington signee is a lethal scorer that plays on the perimeter and has a chance to be a National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick. He’s got the size and athleticism to overwhelm smaller defenders and the quicks to light up college fours, Porter is also a strong rebounder who is tougher than some give him credit for.

The big question for Porter next season isn’t about him, it will be how good that Tigers team is around him. New head coach Cuonzo Martin inherited a mediocre-at-best roster, but he’s added some talented — but very young — pieces. If Porter Jr.’s younger brother, Jontay, also reclassifies to this year, Missouri might even be a sleeper NCAA tournament team.

     RELATED: It’s All In The Family for the Porters

But even if Porter and Missouri misses the Big Dance, as expected, it shouldn’t have any kind of major bearing on his draft stock as long as he is productive. Both Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz went No. 1 in the draft after missing the NCAA tournament.

Michael Porter, Jr. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
2. Deandre Ayton, Arizona, Fr.: Not many 7-footers move as well as Ayton, and it was part of the reason he was once considered the No. 1 prospect in this class. As a sophomore in high school, Ayton once gave future Final Four team North Carolina a double-double in an exhibition game in his native Bahamas.

With an ability to run the floor like a guard while being quick enough to switch onto some perimeter players, Ayton is a rare athlete at center who also has some intriguing offensive capabilities: He has a good touch from the free-throw line and mid-range and some fluidity on the perimeter.

But the big question is his motor. There are times when Ayton disappears for stretches of games, and then there are the stretches where he absolutely dominates everyone. It’ll be fascinating to see which Ayton we see every game at Arizona. If he’s engaged all year he has a chance to be a No. 1 pick.

3. Miles Bridges, Michigan State, So.: Bridges will test whether or not returning to school when you are a projected lottery pick is the dumbest thing that an athlete can do. Anyone that watched Michigan State play last season knows how good this guy is. He’s a 6-foot-7 combo-forward that jumps through the roof and can be a multi-positional defender. In a league that prioritizes positionless basketball and values the ability to defend the rim and space the floor, Bridges shot 39 percent from three and averaged 1.5 blocks.

The big question for him next season is going to be his transition to being a full-time perimeter player. Bridges spent much of his freshman campaign playing a small-ball four role for the Spartans. But with Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward on the floor at the same time, he’s going to be a small forward through and through. Is he skilled enough for that role, or will he be “exposed”?

4. Luka Doncic, Real Madrid: The random Euro dude you’ve never heard of. He’s 6-foot-8. He’s a shooting guard that knocked down 37 percent of his threes. He’s from Slovenia. His dad’s named Sasa. When my son was born I used my one name veto on ‘Luka’. Draft Express thinks he’s going No. 1 overall. I’ll slot him in at No. 4 because his neckbeard hasn’t fully grown in yet.

5. Robert Williams, Texas A&M, So.: Here’s to hoping that Williams made the right decision. A 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and freakish athleticism that averaged 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks as a freshman, Williams made the decision to return to College Station for his sophomore season when he had the chance to be a first round pick — potentially a lottery pick — in the 2017 NBA Draft. That’s a serious risk, one that Cal center Ivan Rabb learned was not the best decision when he went from being a projected lottery pick to the No. 35 pick by returning for his sophomore campaign. The Aggies should be really good next season, and that will help, as will the fact that there is actually a point guard on the roster. But striking while the iron is hot is the key for potential lottery picks when it comes to cashing in on those guaranteed contracts.

6. Mohamed Bamba, Texas, Fr.: Gifted with an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan, the 7-foot-1 Bamba has the chance to be one of the best defensive players in the nation this season. Not only can Bamba wall up at the rim and defend with his ridiculous standing reach, but he’s also quick enough to switch and defend wings on the perimeter and stick with them. Rebounding also comes naturally to Bamba because his length enables him to snare rebounds well above rim level.

Offense is going to be the major question mark with Bamba. While Bamba has been able to finish over smaller defenders near the basket, he’s a very skinny 210 pounds and he doesn’t possess a lot of polish. Even if Bamba’s offensive game doesn’t show a lot this season, he has the kind of rare athleticism and tools that could make him a top three pick.

7. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State, Fr.: Late-blooming big man Jaren Jackson Jr. has a chance to be a rare Big Ten one-and-done player. The 6-foot-10 Jackson just helped La Lumiere to a national championship at the high school level last season as he’ll be a major piece for the Spartans this season.

Not only can Jackson produce at a potential double-double level but he’s also a gifted three-point shooter who is effective in the pick-and-pop game. Young for his class, Jackson’s body and skill level are still developing, but he showed signs of being a dominant sidekick for Miles Bridges.

Wendell Carter, Jon Lopez/Nike
8. Wendell Carter, Duke, Fr.: The 6-foot-10 Carter should be much more of an impact than Harry Giles III or Marques Bolden this season as he’s a developed scorer who can play with his back to the basket or facing up. With a surprising amount of touch and perimeter skill for a 260-pound big man, Carter is the type of force who could attract double teams while opening things up for guys like Grayson Allen.

And Carter is no slouch athletically, either. Although he’s not a freak like Ayton or Bamba, Carter is a very good athlete who can rebound in traffic and protect the rim as well. It would come as no surprise if Carter was actually the most effective big man of this list at the college level this season as he should have a very balanced roster around him.

9. Bruce Brown, Miami, So.: I’m all-in on Miami as a national title contender this season, and one of the biggest reasons why is Bruce Brown. He’s a 6-foot-5 combo-guard with long arms and a physical frame, he shoots it well from three and can operate in pick-and-rolls and has a competitive fire about him that cannot be taught. I think there’s a chance that he ends up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, and if Jim Larrañaga can work his point guard magic with him, he’ll be a top ten pick in June.

10. Troy Brown, Oregon, Fr.: Brown is something of a swiss army knife in the sense that he can do a little bit of everything. He scores, he passes, he hits the glass and he does all this as a 6-foot-6 wing with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He’ll also be playing for a team that will showcase his versatility in Oregon. On paper, he looks like a guy that should fit the positionless mold of the modern NBA quite well. Having said that, he’s not a great athlete and he’s not a great shooter, which takes some of the luster off of the idea that he can guard multipositions and spread the floor.

11. Chimezie Metu, USC, Jr.: Metu is an interesting, still-developing prospect. He’s got the physical tools to project as an NBA front court player as well as an improving offensive repertoire. The key for him is going to be seeing where he takes a step forward this offseason. He has a decent base of perimeter skills — he makes midrange jumpers and shoots 75 percent from the foul line — but ultimately he needs to extend that range and showcase more toughness in the paint, on the glass and protecting the rim.

Collin Sexton, Jon Lopez/Nike
12. Collin Sexton, Alabama, Fr.: One of the best scorers at 6-foot-1 in recent memory, Sexton led the EYBL, Nike’s AAU circuit, in scoring last spring by a full eight points, nearly 30 points per game. Sexton is undersized and incredibly intense bordering on insane, which means that he’ll a fun player to watch and one that could become very popular with fans this season. The MVP of USA Basketball’s gold-medal winning U17 World Championship team last summer, Sexton has a big-game mentality as he’s one of the most competitive players in the class.

     RELATED: How Collin Sexton made himself a five-star

Perimeter shooting was is the shaky part of Sexton’s scoring game. He has improved it steadily over time, but that’s something he’s going to need to develop if he’s going to be a lottery pick as many project him to be.

13. Lonnie Walker, Miami, Fr.: Another one of the reasons I think that Miami is going to be awesome this season. Walker is a big, long and strong shooting guard than can play with the ball in his hands. He made 40 percent of his threes on the Nike EYBL circuit and he has the tools to be a big time defensive menace. He’s one of my favorite guards in the Class of 2017.

14. Trevon Duval, Duke, Fr.: A freakish athlete at point guard who can play well above the rim, the 6-foot-2 Duval will help stabilize the point guard position for Duke this season. Working in a reliable jump shot is going to be the big thing to watch for Duval this season. The way the point guard spot is trending, he’ll need to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers — something that hasn’t always been reliable. There are also times that Duval can play too fast as he can be reckless with turnovers and taking tough shots. But if Duval corrects those workable mistakes, then he has a chance to get Duke to another Final Four because they have plenty of offensive weapons.

  • 15. De’Anthony Melton, USC, So.
  • 16. Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 17. Mitchell Robinson, Western Kentucky, Fr.
  • 18. Justin Jackson, Maryland, So.
  • 19. Grayson Allen, Duke, Sr.
  • 20. Devonte’ Graham, Kansas, Sr.
  • 21. Kevin Knox, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 22. Shake Milton, SMU, Jr.
  • 23. V.J. King, Louisville, So.
  • 24. Killian Tillie, Gonzaga, So.
  • 25. Quenton Rose, Temple, So.
  • 26. Vince Edwards, Purdue, Sr.
  • 27. Allonzo Trier, Arizona, Jr.
  • 28. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, Jr.
  • 29. Marques Bolden, Duke, So.
  • 30. Aaron Holiday, UCLA, Jr.