The spotlight was on Shabazz Napier from the moment his NBA career began. He was no ordinary 24th overall pick, a college senior trying to make an impact on an NBA squad.
Napier, a Roxbury native, was endorsed by LeBron James. James watched Napier carry seventh-seeded UConn to the NCAA title, serving as the leader of a team that made an improbable run under Kevin Ollie.
Napier’s stock rose dramatically. He commanded the respect of his teammates. His basketball IQ was high. He had a couple of nifty moves to compensate for a lack of elite athleticism.
So he spent a year in Miami. But James wasn’t there. He bolted for the Cavaliers, leaving the Heat with a player they only acquired to appease their superstar. That left Napier in a precarious position during his rookie season.
He was eventually traded to the Magic last summer, and is attempting to jump-start his career as a reserve point guard, hoping he has found a home. He was back in Boston on Friday night to reunite with family and friends.
“It’s a great situation for me,” he said. “I’m happy to be here [in Orlando]. It’s a team that’s always improving. The transition, I think what I always look at is continue to be that person who always motivates myself, always pushes myself to be better. I always understood that each year you’ve got to bring something new to the table and that’s the only thing I focus on. I can’t focus on much of anything else that’s out of my control.”
Napier has always embraced his Roxbury roots. The list of NBA players from greater Boston is limited, and that makes him more determined to succeed.
“Definitely a sense of pride,” said Napier, who attended Charlestown High School and Lawrence Academy. “You can ask any of these guys coming from where they came from, there is always a sense of pride to get to where you want to be as a young kid. I’ll always have the drive because I had older guys in front of me who always pushed me . . . to believe I can be where I’m at now.”
Napier needed that belief during a trying rookie season. Every mistake he made, Napier heard, “That’s the guy LeBron wanted.” James said he never told the Heat to acquire Napier as a means of encouraging him to re-sign, but he tweeted that he admired the point guard during UConn’s tournament run.
“I never cared too much [about that],” Napier said. “We all knew the situation, so I never cared too much about it, basically. I knew from the summer [the Heat] were trying to figure out a way to trade myself, [Chris Andersen], and Mario Chalmers, so I wasn’t surprised at all.”
The Heat traded Napier to Orlando on July 27 for a conditional second-round pick that was top-55 protected, essentially giving him away.
“I’ve always understood the business. I got traded on draft night [from Charlotte to Miami],” Napier said. “I never allowed it to push me away from my ultimate goal. It’s still the same as a young kid growing up. It was just to play in the NBA, it was to make an impact.
“I knew for a fact coming into my rookie year I wasn’t going to make the crazy impact I want to make as a young kid. It’s going to take time.”
Magic coach Scott Skiles said Napier has potential but like many young players battles inconsistency.
“We like him overall,” said Skiles. “One of the reasons we got him was his ability to shoot the ball. He hasn’t shot the ball as well as we know he can shoot yet. He’s had some games and some moments. I played him the whole fourth quarter the other night [against Milwaukee] because we had the team in a good rhythm. We have confidence in him. Like almost everybody else, he needs to play better.”
Lack of talent on International side
The NBA last week released rosters for the Rising Stars Challenge. The game, scheduled for Feb. 12 in Toronto, pits the best first- and second-year players from the United States against international counterparts.
What was called the Rookie-Sophomore Game has served as a nice prelude to the All-Star Game for the last 22 years, with some of the game’s future stars given the opportunity to taste All-Star Weekend as well as display their skills.
When the Rookies vs. Sophomores theme grew tired, the NBA decided to have a draft — similar to the current NFL Pro Bowl format — of first- and second-year players by former NBA stars. Last season, the league decided on the US vs. World format, which has limited the roster selection, omitting some talented players.
It was obvious there was a shortage of qualified international players for the 10-man roster, considering the selections of Utah’s Raul Neto (averaging 5.6 points and 2.3 assists), Orlando’s Mario Hezonja (4.6 points), and Dallas’s Dwight Powell (6.9 points). Meanwhile, Phoenix’s Devin Booker (averaging 9.5 points, 16.8 in January), Detroit’s Stanley Johnson (8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds), the Lakers’ Julius Randle (10.7 points, 9.6 rebounds), and Denver’s Gary Harris (11.1 points) were left off the US squad.
If there aren’t more qualified international players for the game, then the NBA shouldn’t force the format. Booker, Johnson, Randle, and Harris deserve to be in the game. It’s time to return to drafting players or the Rookie-Sophomore format to attract the best young talent.
It’s obvious the NBA wants to promote its young international players, but if those players aren’t making much of a contribution for their teams, they shouldn’t have the privilege of making an All-Star Weekend appearance, regardless of how much the NBA wants them there.
Issues abound for commissioner
It’s been an interesting two years for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has had to deal with the Donald Sterling situation, Danny Ferry’s racist comments about Luol Deng, and the 76ers continuing to tank seasons. Add to Silver’s list in the last week naming an Eastern Conference All-Star coach following the Cavaliers’ firing of David Blatt, and whether to assess a penalty against the Clippers’ Blake Griffin for going Mike Tyson on an assistant equipment manager.
Tyronn Lue was named an All-Star coach before coaching his third NBA game because of Blatt being fired despite the Cavaliers leading the Eastern Conference. In a perfect world, Silver could have assigned Dwane Casey, who is guiding the second-seeded Raptors and would have made for a wonderful story in Toronto, site of the All-Star Game, but an obscure rule prevents Silver from making that change. Since Lue was the head coach of the team of the best record, he had to be the All-Star coach.
It was an uncomfortable choice at best. Lue realizes he’s undeserving of an honor that many veteran coaches never experience, but he has to accept it.
Among the coaching fraternity, the firing of Blatt is disturbing. If the NBA is a wins-and-losses league, removing a coach with a 30-11 record with his point guard missing the season’s first two months alarmed those coaches who are already concerned that players are having more influence on organizational decisions.
Lionel Hollins was handed the residue of a playoff team in Brooklyn and was fired because he was not part of the organization’s long-term future. Which begs the question: If the Nets were truly rebuilding, then why hire a retread instead of a coach who can grow with the organization? Hollins never seemed the right fit in Brooklyn and he couldn’t help that general manager’s Billy King’s moves failed miserably and he inherited an aging roster with little upside.
As for Griffin, the NBA has to penalize a player for striking a team employee. While it will already be a penalty that he’ll miss 4-6 weeks with a broken bone in his right hand, Griffin may be the target of the NBA sending a league-wide message against violence involving staff members.
The 76ers suspended rookie Jahlil Okafor two games for his altercation outside a Boston bar, as well as a previous speeding violation, without the league or players’ union getting involved. But Griffin’s case is stickier. The league has to protect its employees, and the assistant equipment manager, Matias Testi, could easily file a lawsuit against Griffin, the Clippers, and even the NBA. It will be interesting to see what the Clippers’ and league’s investigation discover about the incident and whether Testi remains with the team.
Rose starting to blossom again
Derrick Rose may be the most-maligned former league MVP of the past 20 years. After winning the award in 2010-11 and looking as if he would lead the Bulls to their first title since the Michael Jordan era, the explosive guard has been besieged with injuries, unable play a full schedule since that standout season.
Rose has played in 39 of Chicago’s first 45 games, meaning barring injury he is headed for a 70-plus-game season. And coming off another knee injury last season, Rose has taken his time to warm up. But in 12 January games, Rose is averaging 17.4 points on 46 percent shooting.
He is driving more aggressively to the basket, his floater is falling more often, and he has less often settled for 3-pointers. Rose has been surpassed as the best player on his team by All-Star Jimmy Butler. Those visions of Rose slicing through defenses and leading the Bulls back to the promised land are considered illusions now.
That’s unless Rose can regain his form, and the 27-year-old believes he is indeed closing in on full health.
“I’m just hooping,” he said. “I try not to think about stats. I just go out there and play and it’s up to y’all [in the media] to say whatever y’all want to say or write whatever y’all want to write. My job is just to come in and get the most out of every day.”
The struggle, Rose said, is trusting his body again. Over the past five years, Rose has suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, a torn right meniscus (twice), and myriad other nagging injuries.
“It’s just taking your time and being patient,” he said. “You want results right away, but it doesn’t happen like that. You’ve got to live in reality in whatever your situation is.”
When asked if he was still the same player as he was before the injuries, Rose was emphatic. “You can’t see it while I’m out there? I hope so. Whenever I step on the floor, I just try to play my heart out, just try to play aggressive, and try to win a game, for one.”
Rose is realistic. He understands fans, as well as his critics, need to see a more consistent and healthier Rose before they consider him among the NBA elite. Despite being just 27, Rose could be considered on the downside of his career.
He doesn’t consider himself an All-Star — yet.
“Not at all,” he said. “I missed too many games. I don’t care about what people think or say, it’s whatever they say. The only thing I can do is keep working on my game and focusing on what I’ve been focusing on.”
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he has noticed gradual improvement in Rose. Players such as Butler and Pau Gasol have lessened the offensive load on Rose, so expectations have dipped.
“He’s gotten himself in better shape,” Hoiberg said. “I think his push has progressively gotten better, his numbers have gone up month by month. I think the biggest thing for him, watching him play, is he’s getting comfortable out there. I thought the [Warriors game Jan. 20], even though we got it handed to us, I thought Derrick was phenomenal, especially early. We had the lead when he went out of the game and it went downhill from there.
“But I thought he guarded, he was battling [Stephen] Curry, and offensively he was in attack mode the whole game. That’s what we need. When Derrick has that kind of attack and push, we have a chance for a good second half [of the season].”
Rose’s aggressiveness has been apparent. He attempted a whopping 271 3-pointers in 51 games last season coming off knee surgery. He has attempted just 89 in his first 39 games in 2015-16.
“When Derrick can get into the paint, it forces help, it helps everybody,” Hoiberg said. “That’s the kind of attack we need from Derrick.”
Two former players are trying to return to the NBA through the NBADL. Ex-Celtic Keith Bogans, who last played for Boston in 2013-14 before being sent home to wait for a trade that didn’t happen until the offseason, is in the NBADL player pool. Bogans, 35, played for the Trail Blazers during summer league but served as more of a cheerleader for the younger players. Bogans told the Globe in July that he had more basketball left and had no plans on retiring. The Celtics traded his nonguaranteed contract to Cleveland, and the Cavaliers traded him to Philadelphia, which waived him. Meanwhile, former All-Star Baron Davis also is in the D-League pool. Davis hasn’t played since blowing out his knee in May 2012 during a Knicks playoff series with the Heat. Davis was 33 at the time of the injury and has flirted with returns before . . . Schea Cotton, whom Kevin Garnett once referred to as “LeBron before LeBron,” was scheduled to debut a screening of his documentary “Manchild” on Saturday in Los Angeles. Cotton was considered the best prep player in the nation in the early 1990s, even dominating Garnett in an AAU game despite being just 6 feet 4 inches. Cotton eventually played at Alabama and then overseas. His only NBA exposure was playing for the Magic’s summer league team in 2001 and the Clippers’ summer squad in 2003. “Manchild” focuses on Cotton’s journey as a prep phenom and the disappointment of falling short of reaching the NBA . . . Monday’s Warriors-Spurs game was the most-watched ever on NBA TV. Despite the Warriors running away to a 30-point win, the game attracted 1.4 million viewers. It was the first meeting of the season between the teams . . . The Hawks need to make a decision at point guard, as coach Mike Budenholzer has been splitting time between Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague. Teague is averaging 6.7 minutes in the fourth quarter, while Schroder is averaging 5.7. Teague’s overall numbers are better, but it seems the Hawks may be shopping him, feeling Schroder has a higher upside. Teague is a free agent after next season and his salary is modest ($8 million per season), making him an attractive player to trade.
Losing in style
DeMarcus Cousins set a league high this season with 56 points Monday in a loss to Charlotte. If that total holds up, it would make him only the second player since 2000 to drop a season- high point total in a loss:
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
Clarification: This story was updated to include the rule the NBA must follow when naming replacement coaches for the All-Star Game.