Skip to content

Comparing Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker is unfair but inevitable

Apr 2, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT

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. Iowa State lands Iowa Western CC point guard Donovan Jackson

    Aug 30, 2015, 9:52 PM EDT

    Steve Prohm AP

    With Monte’ Morris being a junior and Nick Noskowiak leaving the program, Iowa State needed a point guard in the 2016 class.

  2. Michigan State caps Italy trip with one-point loss to Georgian national team (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 8:41 PM EDT

    Lourawls Nairn Jr. AP

    These games against seasoned competition will help Michigan State in the tough Big Ten this season.

  3. Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije helps Nigeria clinch Olympic berth

    Aug 30, 2015, 7:27 PM EDT

    Michael Gbinije AP

    Gbinije averaged 7.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game at Afrobasket.

  4. Avoiding summer fatigue key for Illinois junior Malcolm Hill

    Aug 30, 2015, 6:01 PM EDT

    Malcolm Hill AP

    Hill led the team in minutes played last season, and it’s been tough to keep him out of the gym this summer despite attempts to get him to spend some time resting.

  5. Stanford getting great production from Reid Travis on overseas trip

    Aug 30, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Reid Travis is looking like a potential go-to scorer for the Cardinal this season after some strong outings in Europe.

  6. Colorado State finds difficulty scheduling good non-conference games

    Aug 30, 2015, 10:50 AM EDT

    Larry Eustachy AP

    Colorado State is having a rough go of getting great programs to play in their building.

  7. POSTERIZED: Northwestern’s Scottie Lindsey dunks on a defender on team’s foreign trip (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Purdue Northwestern Basketball AP

    Scottie Lindsey put one on a defender during Northwestern’s trip to Spain.

  8. Assistant coach Dwayne ‘Tiny’ Morton leaves Seton Hall staff

    Aug 30, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Seton Hall Athletics Seton Hall Athletics

    According to the New York Post, Morton will go back to teaching full-time.

  9. Michigan State falls short against Italian national team (VIDEO)

    Aug 29, 2015, 9:04 PM EDT

    Tom Izzo, Alvin Ellis III AP

    Michigan State scheduled games against three national teams preparing for next month’s Eurobasket championships (Russia, Italy and Georgia).

  10. European shooting guard not joining Western Kentucky program

    Aug 29, 2015, 6:50 PM EDT

    Ray Harper AP

    According to head coach Ray Harper, Kristaps Gluditis was regarded as one of the top shooters in Europe.

  11. French power forward Killian Tillie commits to Gonzaga

    Aug 29, 2015, 4:39 PM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptc5mwmxmje1ngi4y2iwzjgyn2qxyjgxntuxnzu1ndm0 AP

    Tillie is a skilled forward who will have the chance to contribute immediately in 2016-17 due to the eventual losses of Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski (both are seniors this season).

  12. North Carolina’s Theo Pinson calls his shot before draining a deep shot in the Dean Dome (VIDEO)

    Aug 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT

    Virginia Tech v North Carolina Getty Images

    Theo Pinson makes a bold statement and backs it up by burying a tough shot.

  13. Washington loses veteran guard who will not return to the team

    Aug 29, 2015, 12:15 PM EDT

    (AP) AP

    Washington is losing another player as the team only returns two scholarship players from last season.

  14. Michigan’s Spike Albrecht begins shooting jumpers after offseason hip surgery (VIDEO)

    Aug 29, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT

    (Getty Images) Getty Images

    Michigan received some positive news as a key member of the 2014-15 season returned to the floor.

  15. Summer mixtape of five-star 2016 guard Seventh Woods (VIDEO)

    Aug 29, 2015, 9:15 AM EDT

    (Kelly Kline/Under Armour) (Kelly Kline/Under Armour)

    Seventh Woods still has plenty of highlight plays up his sleeve.

  16. Michigan State falls to Russian National Team 93-75

    Aug 28, 2015, 9:30 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    The Spartans are now 1-1 on the trip.

  17. Joey van Zegeren’s three alley-oop dunks in the third quarter highlight Northwestern’s win

    Aug 28, 2015, 8:15 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP Photo

    It’s Joey van Zegeren’s first year with the Northwestern program.