It’s been a process, but Shabazz Napier’s grown into his leadership role

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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.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert got a $500,000 raise in 2016

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NCAA president Mark Emmert, the man in charge of a non-profit association that doesn’t have enough money to pay its laborers, received a $500,000 raise for the 2016 calendar year, bringing his total income to more than $2.4 million, according to an NCAA tax return that was obtained by USA Today.

That number actually pales in comparison to the salaries that are received by the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences.

But there’s not enough money to pay the players.

Nope.

Everyone is broke.

Carry on with your day, and pray for the well-being of NCAA administrators like Mark Emmert, whose salary is in no way whatsoever inflated by amateurism, which allows the schools and the NCAA to bank all of the advertising revenue that college basketball and football brings in and bars the players themselves from accessing that money.

Who will follow Donte DiVincenzo’s breakout path to the NBA next?

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It was little surprise Thursday night Donte DiVincenzo get drafted 17th overall at the NBA draft by the MIlwaukee Bucks.

The 6-foot-5 guard has been a staple of mock drafts since he declared for the draft after earning Most Outstanding Player honors as Villanova won its second national championship in three years.

A few months ago, though, something like that would have seemed an extreme long shot after an unremarkable freshman season by the Delaware product who redshirted after a foot injury in 2015-16. A lot can change in a single season.

So who is the next player to go from fringe prospect to first-round selection? Here’s the DiVincenzo Watch List:

JORDAN POOLE, Michigan: You might remember the Michigan freshman for his game-winner against Houston to help the Wolverines on their way to the national title game, but the former top-100 recruit averaged just 12.2 minutes per game for John Beilein last year. This season, he’s in line for a lot more PT and a chance to shine for more than one moment.

NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech: The 6-foot-5 guard can really fill it up, but battled mightily with inconsistency last season. There were nights he’d go for 15-plus and follow it up with a succession of single-digit performances. His offensive game – his ability to make plays and quarterback pick-and-roll – will make him an intriguing NBA prospect. Being able to do it night-in and night-out could make him a first-rounder.

JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech: Zhaire Smith got all the NBA attention last year while Keenan Evans got the attention of Big 12 defenses, but Culver is a bona fide prospect in his own right. The Red Raiders will be his team next season, and if he shoots it a little better (converted at 38.2 percent from 3 as a freshman), it’s not inconceivable it’s his last in Lubbock.

O’SHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: The 6-foot-8 forward quietly had a very productive freshman season, averaging  14.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game for the Orange. He needs to be more efficient, but if he can start making shots with more regularity (he’s plenty comfortable shooting from the outside), he’ll rocket up draft boards.

AMIR COFFEY, Minnesota: Coffey looked like a blue chip recruit before an ACL tear in high school set him back, and shoulder surgery cut a promising sophomore season short. If he can get past the injuries, Coffey is an intriguing wing prospect at 6-foot-8 with plus-athleticism. His shooting has improved since getting on campus with the Gophers and if that trend continues, NBA teams will take serious notice.

ALEX O’CONNELL, Duke: A top-75 recruit in 2017, O’Connell got limited run last year for the Blue Devils, but shot 48.9 percent on 45 attempts from 3-point range. He should move up the pecking order this season for Duke and could be an impact player off the bench.

LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State: The Cyclones’ leading scorer flirted with going pro after a freshman season in which he averaged 16.7 points and shot 40.1 percent from 3-point range before ultimately returning to Ames. The 6-foot-3 guard is one of the most explosive leapers in college basketball, but needs to improve his decision-making and ballhandling. If he makes even moderate gains in those areas, his physical tools and ability to score the ball could have Adam Silver announcing his name next June.

JALEN MCDANIELS, San Diego State: The 6-foot-10 forward averaged  10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds as a freshman and waited until the final hours before the deadline before announcing his decision to return to the Aztecs. He’s got a ton of upside but some concerns are a meager block rate (2.5 percent) and non-existent game at the arc (4 of 18 from 3 last year). Both of those are issues for big men in the modern NBA. He needs to improve one or both of those areas while continuing to be an above-average rebounder to explode onto the draft scene next summer.

Major rule changes expected for July live recruiting period

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In an effort to kill off AAU basketball and the influence that AAU coaches have over prospects, an NABC Ad Hoc committee is expected to recommend to the Commission on College Basketball that is chaired by Condoleeza Rice to make drastic changes to the summer live period that will include barring coaches from attending AAU tournaments and shoe company sponsored events in July, sources told NBC Sports.

In the place of AAU tournaments, the NABC is planning on recommending that the NCAA fund four regional camps that coaches are allowed to attend. The camps will be staggered to allow staffs to attend each of them, a source told NBC Sports, and the expectation is that the coaching staffs will be able to nominate as many as 35 players be allowed to attend.

Then the NCAA would fund an elite camp where the best players from the regional camps attend. According to Jeff Goodman, G League coaches and potentially NBA players would be teaching and coaching players at these camps.

Goodman also reported that the April live period is expected to remain in place, which sources confirmed to NBC Sports, but there is an expectation that coaches will be allowed to attend practices and open gyms at high schools in May and June. The goal is to get high school coaches more involved in the recruitment process.

Now, this doesn’t mean that AAU basketball is dead and it doesn’t mean that shoe companies like Nike will stop funding circuits like the EYBL. What it does mean is that Division I coaches will not be in attendance during these events in July; they already miss out of two of the EYBL’s spring weekend as it stands. What is may mean, however, is that instead of spending $400 on a packet at these events, the coaches will be paying $400 to get a login for a live-stream.

The timeline, according to Goodman’s report, is that UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, the chairman of the Division I men’s basketball oversight committee, has to draft a proposal to present to Rice and the commission. That is expected to happen in August, and sources told NBC Sports that the changes are expected to be implemented swiftly and without much pushback.

2019 NBA Mock Draft

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With the 2018 NBA Draft in the books, it is time for us to take a look at the 2019 NBA Draft, one in which NBA scouts are not all that enthusiastic about the players at the top. 

One thing to note here is that there are quite a few players in the Class of 2019 that are old enough to reclassify. Ashton Hagans and Charles Bassey have already done it. There may be a few more than follow in the footsteps of Marvin Bagley III and enroll in August. 

Here is a quick mock of the 2019 lottery:

1. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett seems like he is ready to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins before him, becoming the third Canadian youngster to get picked No. 1 in the draft. Before we get into stats and projections, it must be noted: Barrett was phenomenal at the U19 World Cup last summer, as he led the Canadians to a gold medal. That included a semifinal win over Team USA where Barrett put up 38 points, 13 boards and five assists on an American team that included the likes of P.J. Washington, Cam Reddish, Carsen Edwards and first round picks Josh Okogie and Kevin Huerter.

There is an awful lot to like about Barrett and the way that he projects at the NBA level. He stands 6-foot-6. He already has a solid build. He can play on the ball given his passing ability and has the athleticism to play as a wing and a slasher off the ball. He should be able to guard multiple positions. His ceiling will be determined by how well his jumper develops, but he’s already spent time working with the Three-Point Whisperer, Drew Hanlen.

2. NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

Little’s college career got off to something of a rocky start before it even started. He found himself ensnared in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball when shoe company executives were caught on wiretaps talking about a bidding war between Nike and Adidas and whether they’d funnel him to Arizona or Miami. That turned out well for North Carolina, because he fell into their lap and could end up being the highest Tar Heel picked in the draft since Marvin Williams went No. 2 in 2005.

Little was one of the biggest risers in this recruiting class, going from being a four-star recruit to a top five player in the class. He was the MVP of the McDonalds game. He’s added strength and continuously played with a motor that he hasn’t always shown. His size (6-foot-7), length (7-foot-1 wingspan) and athletic ability makes him an ideal switchable wing, and if his jumper continues to progress, he’ll have a chance to play for a long time in the NBA.

3. CAM REDDISH, Duke

Like Little and Barrett, Reddish is a fluid, 6-foot-7 wing with a long wingspan and the kind of athleticism that would lead you to believe he can play and defend multiple positions. Unlike Barrett and Little, Reddish is further along on the offensive side of the ball than on the defensive side. He’s a better shooter than the two guys listed in front of him, but his growth will come as he learns to be tougher and improves defensively.

But that skill-set he has offensively is really intriguing, and there are some that believe that, given what his ceiling is as a scorer, he could end up being the best player in this class if it all comes together for him.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

4. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter is going to be an interesting draft prospect to monitor. For the most part, Tony Bennett has done a phenomenal job at turning relatively average — from an NBA perspective — prospect into quality pros. Mike Scott is still in the NBA. Malcolm Brogdon won Rookie of the Year and looks like a steal of a second round pick. Joe Harris. Justin Anderson. Even Klay Thompson is a Tony Bennett product from the Washington State days.

But Hunter, who averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards last season, is different. Given his physical tools and skill-set, he fits the mold of a wing in the modern NBA perfectly. He has the size at 6-foot-7, the wingspan, the defensive versatility. He can makes threes and attack closeouts. He has some ability to create his own shot. How will he develop in a system that is so … well, Virginia?

5. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas

Grimes is stepping into a situation at Kansas that is going to be somewhat strange. On the one hand, with four starters gone — including the entire perimeter — the Jayhawks are going to have shots available. On the other hand, Kansas had three players, including all-american Dedric Lawson, sitting out as transfers. Rarely has a new roster ever been so experienced.

Grimes should fit in just fine. At 6-foot-5, he has the size and ability to play on or off the ball. He can shoot it, he can operate in ball-screens and he has a feel for the game. He’s just a good, solid basketball player that has some upside and should provide Bill Self — who he spent July playing for with the U18 team — with some immediate backcourt relief.

6. SEKOU DOUMBOUYA, France

I’m not going to pretend like I’ve watched a ton of video on Doumbouya, but people I trust are high on him. The native of Guinea checks all the boxes for what NBA teams are looking for: Long, athletic, versatile defensively. Read this profile on him to get a feel.

(AP Photo/Michael Woods)

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford was arguably the biggest surprise in this draft class, as he turned down a chance to sneak into the back-end of the lottery to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season. At 6-foot-11, Gafford, who posted 11.8 points, 6.2 boards and 2.2 blocks as a freshman in the SEC, is an absolute freak of an athlete with solid length, some defensive instincts and quite a bit of potential.

To me, Gafford is built in the mold of of the rim-running, lob-catching, paint-protecting big with the potential to be switchable on the perimeter. We’ll see if his jumper ever comes around, but even if it doesn’t, he’s giving off some strong Clint Capela vibes, and that’s something that everyone is going to be looking for.

8. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

Langford has all the hype. An Indiana high school basketball legend that chased another Indiana high school basketball legend’s state scoring record, never left the state and opted to play his college ball for the Hoosiers. There’s a reason this kid spent an hour signing autographs for fans after his high school games.

He’s going to be an even bigger star for the Hoosiers next season, who I think will be in the NCAA tournament. Langford, a 6-foot-5 scorer and big-time athlete with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, could end up averaging 18 points next season. “He’s a bucket.”

9. LOUIS KING, Oregon

Bol Bol, the 7-foot-3 son of Manute Bol who spends all day shooting threes, is the Oregon player that is inevitably going to get the most hype, but for my money it’s Louis King that will end up being the best pro. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, King is the kind of fluid, skilled wing that is en vogue in the modern NBA.

The thing that’s intriguing about him is that he has some skill offensively. He’s more of a combo-forward than he is a natural wing, but he can do some things off the dribble, has shown flashes of being a playmaker and has developed into a guy that is threat from beyond the arc. He should thrive in Dana Altman’s system at Oregon.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

10. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Rui’s potential is off the charts, and I still get the sense that the 6-foot-8 Beninese-Japanese Gonzaga product doesn’t totally have a feel for how the game is played here just yet. I fully believe that Rui is going to get buckets for the Zags next season, but if he is going to develop into a top ten pick, there are some things that he needs to improve on.

Shooting is an issue for him — he’s shot just 9-for-40 from three in two seasons in Spokane. He is also going to need to continue to develop on the defensive end of the floor, where he is fairly unproductive for a player with his physical tools. But the potential is there, and he’ll spend plenty of time on national television; Gonzaga is No. 2 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

11. DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt

For me, Garland is the best NBA prospect of the point guards in the 2018 recruiting class. As competitive as Ashton Hagans is and as much of a proven winner as Tre Jones is, Garland’s game seems to fit the best at the next level. The NBA is a league where skill-level is becoming more and more important, which is why you saw Trae Young end up the No. 5 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his warts.

For my money, Garland is the most skilled of the point guards. He’s probably the best shooter, he can operate in ball-screens and he’s a passer. He’ll be asked to shoulder plenty of the load for Vandy next season, so he should be fun to track.

12. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

I think Edwards is going to have a monstrous season as a junior for the Boilermakers. He averaged 18.5 points and 2.8 assists this season while shooting 40.6 percent from three despite playing on a team with four seniors, three of whom were all-league players.

Next year, Purdue will be his team, and I think we’ll get a better look at just how dynamic he can be. The key for Edwards will be his passing ability. He’s always been something of a score-first guard, and there’s a place for that in the NBA, but if he is going to end up being picked this high, he needs to showcase a better ability to get teammates involved.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

13. HERB JONES, Alabama

All the talk about Alabama’s recruiting class last season centered on Collin Sexton and, to a lesser extent, John Petty, but there is reason to believe that Jones could end up being the best of the bunch. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, he was the guy that Avery Johnson tasked with slowing down Trae Young when the Crimson Tide faced Alabama this season. He has all the tools that you need to be a terrific defender in the NBA.

The issue is the other side of the ball. He averaged just 4.2 points last season, and his jumper was … let’s just say not great. But he played as a secondary ball-handler at times and initiated some offense, and he seems to have a decent feel of how to play. This is a big summer for him. With Sexton gone, someone is going to need to fill that void, and Jones could be the guy.

14. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

The hype-train for Zion, one of the single-most explosive athletes that I have ever seen, went totally off the rails during his senior season in high school, as the 6-foot-5, 275-pound forward went viral on a nightly basis with his in-game aerial antics. And look, I’m all the way here for the dunks, but I can’t help but wonder just how he impacts a basketball game beyond that.

In my mind, stardom for Williamson comes if he turns into Draymond Green, a small-ball five that fully embraces being a defensive stopper that can guard any position, protects the rim and is a threat to grab-and-go in transition. But Green is a terrific passer that played as a de facto point guard in college, and I’m not sure Williamson is that. Maybe he’s Julius Randle, who seems to be just good enough for the Lakers to have to resign but not quite good enough to have much trade value. That success, however, lies in accepting that he’s closer to being a five than a three. We’ll see how it plays out, I guess.

Buffalo trolls Deandre Ayton with savage tweet

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Today very well could be the best day of Deandre Ayton’s life.

The Arizona product was selected No. 1 overall by the Phoenix Suns in the NBA draft, fulfilling a dream very few basketball players ever realize. It’s a moment that is truly special and demands savoring.

Buffalo, though, took the opportunity to do some grade-A trash talk.

The Bulls tweeted congratulations with an edge to Ayton, reminding him of the Wildcats’ first-round NCAA tournament exit at their hands just a few months ago.

This tweet is great for a couple reasons. First off, it’s legitimately solid trolling. Second, it’s a great way for the Bulls to extract a little more value from one of, if not the, biggest wins in program history.

Great idea. Great execution.