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.
Jan 25, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
Coach K goes for win No. 1,000 against St. John’s and a fun battle of elite freshmen guards in the Big Ten are Sunday’s highlights.
Jan 25, 2015, 1:05 AM EST
I feel comfortable saying I’m a better dancer than Josh Pastner. Not by much, though.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:58 PM EST
Get caught up on everything that has happened in college basketball on Saturday.
Northwestern State staff wears special pants for ‘Suits and Sneakers’ game against McNeese State (PHOTO)
Jan 24, 2015, 11:34 PM EST
The pants worn by the coaching staff were one of the highlights in Northwestern State’s 92-68 win over McNeese State.
Jan 24, 2015, 9:31 PM EST
Crawford and his teammates are looking to rebound from the 18-point loss they suffered at Tulsa Wednesday night.
Jan 24, 2015, 9:20 PM EST
Peel finished the game with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks as the Blue Devils picked up their first win in NEC play.
Jan 24, 2015, 8:34 PM EST
Baylor really needed this win, but Oklahoma has now lost three of their last four.
Jan 24, 2015, 7:20 PM EST
The Tribe bounced back from a loss at Delaware earlier in the week to move into a tie for first in the CAA.
Jan 24, 2015, 6:46 PM EST
Texas Tech hit its first five three-pointers and led by as many as 19 points in the first half of their 78-73 win over the Cyclones.
Jan 24, 2015, 5:20 PM EST
Bonkers is the only way to describe this finish.
Jan 24, 2015, 4:52 PM EST
“We are still the best team in the Big 12″ — Kansas, on Saturday.
Ohio’s Maurice Ndour beats the buzzer with a dunk after full-court inbound pass for last-second win (VIDEO)
Jan 24, 2015, 4:27 PM EST
What an unbelievable finish in the MAC.
Jan 24, 2015, 3:14 PM EST
Wilson dunks all over Georgetown’s Paul White.
Jan 24, 2015, 2:17 PM EST
Clemson’s Josh Smith is the early hero of Saturday.
Jan 24, 2015, 1:53 PM EST
White is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Hawkeyes.
Jan 24, 2015, 1:30 PM EST
Northeastern and William & Mary clash on NBCSN.
Jan 24, 2015, 12:15 PM EST
Walk-ons receiving scholarships will never get old.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:30 AM EST
The College of Charleston battles Drexel in a CAA clash on NBCSN.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:15 AM EST
Pitt will officially be without a wing for the rest of the season.
Maryland, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Wichita State will get ‘Hard Knocks’ treatment in new all-access show
Jan 24, 2015, 10:15 AM EST
Four of the top programs in college basketball will allow Showtime to film them extensively for a new all-access show that is supposed to be similar to HBO’s popular football series “Hard Knocks.”
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