Apr 2, 2014, 7:30 PM EST
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
Mar 1, 2015, 10:21 PM EST
Oregon is 6-0 in games decided by five points or less this season. Bell’s key plays factored into the Ducks getting that sixth win on Sunday.
Mar 1, 2015, 10:08 PM EST
Who were Sunday’s bubble winners and losers?
Late Night Snacks: No. 5 Wisconsin wraps up share of Big Ten title while Pitt, Stanford suffer damaging losses
Mar 1, 2015, 10:05 PM EST
Wisconsin hadn’t won the Big Ten since 2008, although they’ve never finished worse than fourth during Bo Ryan’s tenure in Madison.
Mar 1, 2015, 9:57 PM EST
The Governors have posted four consecutive losing seasons, but their top three scorers are expected back in 2015-16.
Mar 1, 2015, 6:29 PM EST
Davon Dillard announced his commitment to Cal Sunday afternoon. The Golden Bears hope to reel in the two big men who were also on campus in Ivan Rabb and Caleb Swanigan.
Mar 1, 2015, 5:11 PM EST
Austin Nichols injured his ankle early in the second half of Memphis’ loss
Mar 1, 2015, 4:30 PM EST
Northeastern’s Devon Begley had to deal with a unique defender, the mop boy, while scoring off of a steal against College of Charleston.
Mar 1, 2015, 3:35 PM EST
Rodney Purvis just crushed this dunk.
Mar 1, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
Michigan point guard Spike Albrecht has been battling a hip injury this season.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:45 PM EST
Maryland might miss Michal Cekovsky for some time after the freshman big man was injured during warm-ups on Saturday.
Mar 1, 2015, 11:30 AM EST
Kaelon Wilson put it on a defender on Saturday.
Mar 1, 2015, 10:15 AM EST
Kansas State picked up a Class of 2015 guard commitment on Sunday.
Mar 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
A quiet Sunday features some bubble teams clashing.
Late Night Snacks: No. 7 Arizona, No. 11 Wichita State and No. 19 Baylor among Saturday’s big winners
Mar 1, 2015, 2:11 AM EST
No. 1 Kentucky moved to 29-0, and No. 6 Villanova came back to win at Xavier.
Mar 1, 2015, 1:18 AM EST
Will the Zags even stay out west?
Mar 1, 2015, 12:43 AM EST
In a game that saw both teams struggle to find their rhythm, “Zeus” and Gabe York came up big for Arizona.
Bubble Banter: Boise State, St. John’s, Dayton win the day; Texas, N.C. State lose; and Kansas State?
Mar 1, 2015, 12:27 AM EST
All the bubble winners and losers from Saturday’s college hoops action.
Feb 28, 2015, 10:58 PM EST
This came close to being really, really bad.
Feb 28, 2015, 10:25 PM EST
Dwayne Polee II had to sit out Saturday’s loss to Boise State as a result of an abnormal reading generated by his cardiac monitor.
Feb 28, 2015, 7:42 PM EST
With the loss Texas drops to 1-11 in games against teams in the RPI Top 50.
- Bubble Banter: Oregon lands a key win, but Purdue, Stanford and Pitt lose 0
- Late Night Snacks: No. 7 Arizona, No. 11 Wichita State and No. 19 Baylor among Saturday’s big winners 1
- Did Gonzaga cost themselves a No. 1 seed with loss to BYU? 5
- Kaleb Tarczewski produces another quality outing as No. 7 Arizona beats No. 13 Utah 0
- Bubble Banter: Boise State, St. John’s, Dayton win the day; Texas, N.C. State lose; and Kansas State? 4
- No. 1 Kentucky moves to 29-0 with blowout win over No. 18 Arkansas 3
- No. 11 Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley by knocking off No. 10 Northern Iowa 1
- You Make the Call: Was Texas guard Isaiah Taylor fouled on this drive? (13)
- Report: Former Louisville guard Chris Jones charged with rape, sodomy (12)
- Bill Self crushed, Jamari Traylor targeted during Kansas State court storm (VIDEO) (11)
- Dez Wells, Melo Trimble lead No. 14 Maryland to upset of No. 5 Wisconsin (9)
- Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings apologizes for postgame outburst directed at freshman guard Wade Baldwin IV (9)