CHICAGO — Shabazz Napier bookended his college career with national championships, winning as a freshman when he came off the bench for a star-studded squad, then winning again as a senior when he led the UConn Huskies on an improbable title run last month.
“He’s clearly a winner,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “The kid won two titles and he basically won this last one with everyone on his back. Everyone knew he was going to take the shots, and he took them and made them. That does go somewhere in the NBA.”
It’s unclear how much that success will ultimately matter to NBA teams, but Napier, the pride of Roxbury, believes winning is the trait they should rank above all others when evaluating him for the June 26 draft.
“At the end of the day, winning gets you whatever you want,” Napier said during the NBA Draft combine this week, where he’s trying to improve his stock with workouts and interviews.
“It gets your rings, it gets you more fans, it gets you everything an owner needs, everything a team needs. I think it should be No. 1. Certain guys know how to win, certain guys understand what to do at certain times of the game and that’s kind of rare.”
Winning has certainly helped his draft stock, especially after this past season.
“He for sure moved into the first-round radar,” the executive said. “And I think that he opened a lot of eyes — ‘OK, maybe this kid actually has seen the light and he’s a point guard and I can trust him running my team.’ I think in the past, it was always like, ‘I don’t know if I want him handling the ball because I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
A Western Conference executive echoed that point and said that it’s certainly admirable how Napier led the Huskies this past season.
“But when he gets in the NBA, he’s going to be going up against guys who are bigger and more skilled,” the Western Conference executive said. “I think he’s going to be more of a backup and maybe a fringe starter down the road, but I think he really helped himself this year.”
An Eastern Conference scout compared Napier with Tyronn Lue and Howard Eisley, both of whom spent their careers as backups.
“He’s like a third point guard, backup point guard, depending on the matchups,” the scout said.
Can Napier adjust to being a backup?
“That’s going to be the big thing with him, seeing how he acts when he gets in the league and he’s a little brother again,” the scout said.
Napier knows his role will change at the next level.
“I knew once I get onto a different team, I’m going to have a different role, and I’m able to adjust,” he said.
One Eastern Conference executive raved about the 6-foot-1-inch Napier, even while saying that he’d be a reserve.
“Here’s the thing: Conventional wisdom will tell you that he’s not good enough, he’s not big enough, he’s not fast enough, he’s not whatever,” the executive said. “But he just wins. All the kid does is win.”
“And you can look at how much better he got from his freshman year to his senior year. He just got better and better and better and became a better leader, telling people where to go, what to do. He put his arms around guys when he needed to. I’d love to have a guy like that in [the] franchise.
“Is he going to be your starting point guard? No. But he can be a backup, change-of-pace guy. He can definitely be that. And he’ll be fabulous in your locker room. I would not have any doubt putting the ball in his hands and letting him do his thing. He can make shots too. He has deep range.
“So when you’re able to do that, that’s fine. C’mon, man. That’s a big, big bonus. Plus, he’s tough. Plus, he’s a leader. You’ve got a lot of positives. With the negatives, people say the size and he doesn’t have the athleticism and doesn’t have this and doesn’t have that. I just think he’ll succeed.”
As a four-year college player, Napier is a rarity among potential draftees, many of whom left college after their freshman season, but his lengthy career means that scouts and others have been able to study his growth.
“The kid has come a long way,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “I’ve seen him play a ton over the last four years and always thought he was a very selfish, all about him having to score and not making players around him better. But clearly this year, and the last two months, something totally clicked. Something went on that he had never had before happen to him, and now he understands it.”
What will Napier’s role be in the NBA?
“In your guard core, he’s going to be one of the five guards,” the scout said. “I don’t think you’re good enough with him being your backup. I think if he’s your third point, you’re pretty good.”
The scout added, “Who knows? Maybe Shabazz will find a landing spot immediately and someone embraces what he does, but I think the ball has to be in his hands . . . There’s going to be some nights in the league when I could see him going for 18-22 [points] if you give him 13-15 shots, which he needs. He’s always been a volume scorer. Hopefully he continues, and when that light bulb went off and he finally got it and what a true point guard does, hopefully he’ll continue that.”
Napier, who said the word that best describe him is “competitor,” just wants a chance.
“I’m a guy that’s going to give everything he’s got each and every day, whether it be practice, whether it be in a game,” Napier said. “I don’t feel as though you can describe me any other way. I was never given much. I had to always fight for it. That made me who I am today. I feel as though if you give me an inch, I’m going to take another inch. That’s just how I am. When you compete for so long and you want something so bad, you’ll do whatever you can to grab it.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.