Skip to content

Comparing Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker is unfair but inevitable

Apr 2, 2014, 7:30 PM EST

source: Getty Images

Getty Images

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.”

FINAL FOURAll Final Four coverage | X-Factors | Why each team can/won’t win

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.

source:

AP Photo

“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.”

PREVIEWS: Wisconsin-Kentucky | UConn-Florida

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Late Night Snacks: Nova holds off Michigan, Maryland upsets Iowa State, Arkansas gets big road win

    Nov 26, 2014, 12:10 AM EST

    Progressive Legends Classic Getty Images

    Another busy night of college hoops as the Maui semifinals wrap up and Arkansas gets a statement road win.

  2. Maryland upsets No. 13 Iowa State as fearless freshmen mix with gritty veterans for balanced effort

    Nov 25, 2014, 11:50 PM EST

    maryland AP

    Maryland pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season as they outplayed No. 13 Iowa State for much of the game in front of a pro-Cyclone crowd in Kansas City.

  3. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s selflessness during the Maui Invitational will help No. 3 Arizona in the long run

    Nov 25, 2014, 10:18 PM EST

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson AP

    As Arizona has struggled to find consistent offense early in the 2014-15 season, the consistency and selfless nature of sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has allowed Sean Miller to experiment with what works early.

  4. Kansas head coach Bill Self shuffling starting lineups to send message to players

    Nov 25, 2014, 7:45 PM EST

    Bill Self

    Kansas head coach Bill Self is trying to get through to his players by changing starting lineups.

  5. Barclays Center Classic will air on NBC Sports Network on Friday night

    Nov 25, 2014, 5:55 PM EST

    NBCSN

    The Barclays Center Classic doubleheader will air on Friday night on NBC Sports Network.

  6. Providence could be without two key players for multiple games

    Nov 25, 2014, 5:20 PM EST

    AP AP

    The Friars could be depleted on the perimeter against two tough opponents.

  7. Minnesota suspends sophomore guard after arrest for domestic violence

    Nov 25, 2014, 4:24 PM EST

    Richard Pitino AP

    Minnesota will take a hit to its back court with this suspension.

  8. Rick Pitino on blow out win: ‘We played four white guys and an Egyptian’

    Nov 25, 2014, 2:58 PM EST

    AP AP

    I hope his joke doesn’t make people ignore the fact the he really felt bad about this.

  9. Player of the Year Power Rankings: A familiar face on top, but a few surprises behind him

    Nov 25, 2014, 1:18 PM EST

    Frank Kaminsky (AP Photo) Frank Kaminsky (AP Photo)

    Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor are near the top, but the rest of the top five may surprise you.

  10. Report: Oregon’s Dwayne Benjamin out tonight against VCU

    Nov 25, 2014, 12:27 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Benjamin hurt his ankle against Michigan.

  11. #POSTERIZED: Jason McManamen unloads on FAMU defender (VIDEO)

    Nov 25, 2014, 10:30 AM EST

    GoWyo.com GoWyo.com

    Jason McManamen is trying to prove Billy Hoyle and Sidney Dean wrong.

  12. Ricky Doyle secures 70-63 win for No. 19 Michigan over Oregon in Legends Classic

    Nov 25, 2014, 9:00 AM EST

    AP AP

    Michigan was dominated on the glass, but the freshman forward stepped up to ice the victory.

  13. Villanova’s win is evidence of why VCU may have peaked as a basketball program

    Nov 25, 2014, 7:00 AM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Can a team that runs a pressing system truly be one of the nations elite?

  14. Late Night Snacks: San Diego State and BYU engage in double OT thriller; Nova, Zona earn big wins; Indiana upset at home

    Nov 25, 2014, 2:00 AM EST

    Aqeel Quinn AP

    A busy night of tournament and non-conference action in college hoops made for some big wins for Villanova and Arizona and a home loss for Indiana.

  15. No. 13 Iowa State holds off Alabama as bench additions give them even more weapons

    Nov 24, 2014, 11:51 PM EST

    Dustin Hogue AP

    We knew Iowa State had a lot of offensive weapons, but with the return of some key rotation players the Cyclones look really tough.

  16. Tennessee assistant coach resigns amid NCAA probe

    Nov 24, 2014, 8:30 PM EST

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpte3owi1njbhnjg0mtc2yjbkzdgzmdzhnzm2mtbjytc1 AP

    Tennessee is losing an assistant coach as a NCAA investigation into head coach Donnie Tyndall’s time at Southern Mississippi continues.