From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.
NEW YORK — It’s Friday night and Madison Square Garden’s packed. Two boisterous fan bases share the stands, ensuring that every basket, every call, gets equal parts cheers and jeers as two top 25 programs trade haymakers in a thrilling, gnaw-your-nails-to-the-quick instant classic on national television.
For some, an environment like that in a game this early in the season could be overwhelming, but not for Shabazz Napier. November basketball doesn’t get to him. UConn may have been bounced in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA tournament and they may have been relegated to the sidelines of the 2013 NCAA tournament, but remember, Napier’s got a national title ring on his finger. He won a Big East tournament title in this very building. He shared a back court with Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb back in 2011, if you recall.
The moment has never gotten to Napier, which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that he made seemingly every big shot for the No. 18 Huskies in their 59-58 win over Indiana, finishing with 27 points and three assists on 10-for-14 shooting. Four times in the final five minutes, Napier made the play that gave the Huskies the lead. There was the three he hit with 4:29 left. There was the three he set up for Deandre Daniels with 3:32 left. There was the jumper he hit with an Indiana defender’s hand in his face with 2:32 left. And, lastly, there was the acrobatic layup he made with 1:35 left that turned out to be the game-winner.
UConn stopped running offense in the second half. Head coach Kevin Ollie put the ball — put his trust, all of it — in the hands of his senior point guard, running him off of ball-screen after ball-screen, and Napier delivered.
“That’s that Mission Hill coming out of him, that Boston. He’s a fighter,” Ollie said after the game. “He relishes the moment. Some people run away form it, but he embraces it.”
That’s not exactly new. Napier has developed a reputation for being a guy that hits big shots in big moments, but that’s not the only reputation that he has built for himself.
Napier’s long been considered a streaky scorer, a guy that can shoot you into a game when he gets into a rhythm and can just as easily shoot you out of a game when he’s struggling. As a sophomore, Napier replaced Kemba at the point for a team that entered the season ranked in the top five in the country. But the Huskies put together one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, struggling their way through a year where they finished under .500 in the Big East and got knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the 8-9 game.
And while it’s unfair to pin the blame for those struggles on Napier, he certainly didn’t do the Huskies any favors as a boom-or-bust scoring guard on a team that needed a steady, sure-handed leader running the show. In six of his first 12 games that season, Napier scored more than 20 points. The other six? He scored in the single-digits. At one point, he missed 16 straight shots from the field. Napier was trying to outwardly prove that he was a leader, but in reality he was a player whose confidence was in the gutter if he missed his first couple of shots or committed a turnover or two.
That’s a problem. How can you be a leader when you can’t move past a mistake that you made six possessions ago?
On Friday night, Napier made plenty of mistakes. He finished with seven turnovers. He went just 3-for-7 from the free throw line, with three of those misses coming in the final ten minutes. In fact, I would argue that Napier really didn’t play all that well for much of the game. He finished with 11 points in the first half because he hit two threes in the final minute to give UConn a 30-24 lead at the break. And he didn’t play his best in the second half until Indiana started to take control midway through the final stanza.
“When I miss free throws, that’s one thing I worry about most,” Napier said. “That and turnovers. Sometimes when I miss them, my head wanders off. Coach Ollie, he says to just forget about it, it happens.”
In the past, that didn’t always happen.
On Friday night, it did.
And that, more than anything, is where Napier has grown as a player.
He’s always been able to score. He’s always had the ability to create separation in one-on-one situations. He’s always had the ball on a string, the shiftiness and And-1 mixtape flair that will leave defenders looking silly. Where he’s grown is his ability to channel that talent, to become a leader, a steadying influence instead of an infuriating one.
“He doesn’t get down on himself,” Ollie said. “I told him [his leadership is] a special gift, and for him to really get to that next level, he needs to start giving away that gift. It’s not about the buckets. It’s about the leadership. He didn’t do that earlier in his career, and now he’s doing it.”