UConn's Napier the complete package

Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds,and assists. RON CORTES / Staff
Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds,and assists. RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: March 23, 2014

BUFFALO - It has probably been more than two decades, give or take a season, since the best player on the University of Connecticut's basketball team was a senior.

That says something about the impatient nature of big-time college basketball - always willing to trade tomorrow's stability for the short-term fix of today's elite prep players - and it says something about UConn's ability under Jim Calhoun to successfully fish those waters.

The streak is over, however, and that says something much more about Shabazz Napier, the 6-foot-1 senior point guard who led the Huskies in points, rebounds, and assists and was named the American Athletic Conference's first-ever player of the year.

Villanova, which takes on Napier and UConn on Saturday night for the right to advance to the Sweet 16, knows about the value of four-year players, and it also knows about Napier.

Two seasons ago, when both schools were still battling it out in the Big East, Napier hit a pull-up three-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Wildcats in overtime in the Wells Fargo Center. It was a big-time shot from a big-time player and the assumption was that Napier would become another in a long line of Huskies to make the move to the next level.

That didn't happen, however, for a variety of reasons, and now Villanova has to contend with Napier again, two years wiser, two years better, and the biggest reason the Huskies are still hanging around this season.

"He was one of those guys that you would hear . . . he's going to go early to the league. He was a scorer then," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Now he's a complete guard, like what we teach our players to be. I don't know if a guy like him, if he would have left early, would have developed into as complete a player."

The college game rewards complete players, the generalists who can do just about everything. The pro game rewards the specialists, the guys who can do one very specific thing better than most players on earth. And that's why Napier is still at UConn. His draft projection was never higher than low-first-round or early-second-round - it still isn't - but he is the kind of player who can hold a program together and win games in March and April.

That would have been difficult to predict two or three years ago as well. Napier came out of a hardscrabble upbringing in inner-city Boston and was a ballhandling phenom on the playgrounds before he was 10 years old. He went the meat-grinder route through two years of local high school, two years of prep school, and the standard large dose of AAU ball.

When he emerged from that and chose UConn, Napier had more attitude than aptitude. In the end it served him well, but it was touch-and-go for a while. He and Calhoun butted heads frequently.

"He wasn't a McDonald's all-American coming out of high school, so he always had a chip on his shoulder," current head coach Kevin Ollie said. "I'm not going to lie. There [were times] when I was like, 'No, it ain't never going to happen.' There were a couple of those days. . . . He still had a little rebellion in him, wanted to do it his own way."

Napier played his freshman season in the shadow of Kemba Walker, but took over the backcourt after that. He matured as a player and a person and became the leader Calhoun envisioned.

"I'm not a stat guy. I don't really care too much about leading my teammates in all the stats. The thing I care about is leading my team," Napier said. "You get to play the game you love for [only] so many years and that's it. My mother always told me that one thing no one can take away from you is your education. I took that to heart. As a four-year player, I learned a lot of things that you might not get the chance to learn at the next level. A lot of kids struggle to understand that."

Against St. Joseph's on Thursday night, Napier shot poorly from the field most of the night and missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won the game in regulation for UConn. In the overtime, however, he rose to the moment, scoring nine of his team-high 24 points, including 7 for 7 from the free-throw line. He also led the Huskies in rebounds, assists, and steals for the night. As usual.

"I think he's arguably one of the best guards in the country," Wright said. "I thought he would be a guy that would go [to the NBA early]. I really respect him. I admire his decision. I think it was a smart one. I just hope we can shut him down and he doesn't show everybody that [against us]."


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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