WALTHAM — The night before Shabazz Napier worked out for the Celtics, he visited their practice facility, looked around at the championship banners, and a warm feeling washed over him.
“It’s the Celtics,” the Roxbury native and ex-UConn point guard said after his workout at the facility Monday.
“Growing up, when you’re a Boston fan, you get chills every time you watch the game. It took me about 5-10 minutes to realize that I was here.”
Napier met with local media wearing a green-and-white gingham shirt, which he swore was a coincidence — just the cleanest shirt in his suitcase after traveling the country to workout for a half-dozen NBA teams.
But in a session that lasted nearly 15 minutes, Napier gushed about his hometown team, saying he will always “bleed green,” and that he has heard from plenty of friends and family that hope the Celtics draft him.
“I grew up in Boston, so that’s all we know,” Napier said. “We were watching one of the films in there that they put up and one of the guys was like, ‘Why were folks crying when Paul Pierce injured himself in the playoffs and they picked him up off the court?’ I said, ‘That’s Boston. You won’t ever understand it unless you play for Boston or you’ve lived in Boston.’
“That’s just how we are. We love our teams. There’s no bandwagon fans in Boston. Whether we have a great year or not, we all support like it’s the best team we got. He was like, ‘Man, Boston is crazy.’ I said, ‘That’s what we are. Some crazy fans that want nothing but the best for our teams.’ It’s just crazy to even be here. I think it’s kind of insane. It’s a blessing.”
Napier, who bookended a four-year career at UConn with national championships, is projected to be picked in the mid-to-late first round of the June 26 draft, meaning he could be available when the Celtics are picking No. 17.
But he said he hasn’t allowed himself to dream about the possibility of playing for the team that he grew up watching.
“I haven’t really thought about that,” he said. “It is crazy, though, actually working out for them. The last time I remember being here was when I was younger — the Antoine Walker camp. I was really, really young then. To come back here and actually work out for the Celtics is definitely extraordinary.”
Though Napier offers an impressive college résumé, especially after leading the Huskies to a title as a senior when he averaged 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game, teams question his size (6 feet 1 inch).
“Shabazz is not physically overwhelming, but he has toughness, intelligence, and skill. And he’s got extra savvy,” said Austin Ainge, the Celtics’ director of player personnel. “He’s going to make it [in the NBA] is my guess. He’s a good player.”
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “[Winning is] big to me. I think guys that win find ways to win.”
Stevens knows Napier well, as the two faced off in college in the 2011 NCAA title game, when Napier’s UConn team beat Stevens’s Butler Bulldogs, 53-41.
“Obviously, a big-time player who, no matter what, when the lights are the brightest, he’s at his best,” Stevens said. “Kudos to him for the career that he’s had and it’s pretty incredible when you think about a guy winning two national titles in his four years in college. Big fan of his.”
Napier projects as a backup point guard in the NBA. Both Ainge and Stevens discussed the importance of depth.
Despite the fact that undrafted rookie Phil Pressey proved to be a capable backup point guard last season, the Celtics still don’t have much depth behind starter Rajon Rondo, who chatted with Napier on Monday.
“I would love to be under [Rondo],” Napier said. “I’m going to be a sponge [and] he’s one of those smart guys that really understands the game. Me and him just chatted it up a little bit.”
As Napier makes the round with NBA teams, he said he’s trying to convey his leadership above all else.
“That’s kind of what I’m good at,” he said. “I’m a communicator. I vocalize on the court. I kind of give instructions to help us win games. That’s one thing that I do well. I’ve been through a lot, experienced a lot. I understand what my team needs at certain times of the game.”
He also believes that winning is the most important aspect of his résumé.
“At the end of the day, you want to win,” Napier said. “That’s just how it goes. It doesn’t matter if someone is 7 feet or 5 feet. If he knows how to win, he knows how to win. That’s kind of what I can bring. I’ve been through a lot. I didn’t win a lot, but I won enough. I’ve lost a lot in my life, and that helped me understand how to win games.”