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NBA Draft Notebook: Are We Overlooking Shabazz Napier as a Top Prospect?

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NBA Draft Notebook: Are We Overlooking Shabazz Napier as a Top Prospect?
Elsa/Getty Images

For the past two seasons, many have labeled Connecticut's Shabazz Napier as one of college basketball's best point guards. But you rarely ever hear anyone refer to him as a top prospect.

I've been hearing this question asked often lately: "Why doesn't Napier get any love from an NBA standpoint?"

And it's a fair one. In four wins during this NCAA tournament, he's averaging 23.2 points, six boards, 4.5 assists and two steals to go with 14 three-pointers on 45 percent shooting from deep. And it's come against top-flight competition, including three top-four seeds in the Big Dance. 

Earlier this season, he went for 26 points against Florida, including two that came on a game-winning buzzer-beater. Later in the year, he dropped 30 in a loss to Louisville and 34 in a win over Memphis.

He's averaging 18 points, nearly six boards and roughly five assists as a senior, and he's erupted against some of the toughest programs in the nation.

So what gives? What's stopping this kid from entering the NBA draft conversation that includes guys like Syracuse's Tyler Ennis and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart?

Elsa/Getty Images

For starters, at 6'1", 180 pounds with under-the-rim explosiveness, Napier never really offered much upside. He's finished just 52.4 percent of his shots at the rim this season, per Hoop-Math—a number that makes scouts wonder how effective he'll be in the paint in the NBA.  

And though he's got the handle, posture and playmaking skills of a point guard, Napier hasn't always demonstrated the greatest on-court decision-making. Over the years, we've seen him activate shoot-first mode when his team has needed a facilitator. He also loves having the ball in his hands, which leads to over-dribbling, turnovers and low-percentage shots.


It's hurt his image as a prospect, given the stigma that's naturally attached to undersized guards with quick-shooting triggers and questionable shot selection.

“My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to,” Napier told Brian McNally of The Washington Times. “I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university."

Through his first two to three years at Connecticut, Napier was always solid, but he was never able to maximize his stock or stand out as a guy that NBA teams could really use. And the older you get as a prospect, the tougher it becomes to sell your potential. 

Napier is now 22 years old, while the limited upside he's flashed over the years remains the same. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

However, over the course of his senior season, Napier has polished up a couple aspects of his game that previously required some maintenance in order to meet NBA standards. He certainly looks the part now, based on the plays we've seen him make over the past few weeks. 

And I'm buying into it. 

Napier's skill level has just reached a new high. There isn't a number or new statistic that suggests he's finally reached that point. Although it's hard not to stare at his 7.4 win shares, good for No. 3 in the country, a stat that estimates the number of wins contributed by one player due to his offense and defense. 

From an NBA point guard perspective, you have to admire his tight handle under pressure, or how he can shake guys off the dribble to break down defenses. He's just so quick and shifty—Napier keeps defenders on their heels with his unpredictable change-of-direction ability that allows him to navigate through traffic or separate for a jumper.

At the college level, with so few reliable weapons to lean on, Napier often feels obligated to overuse that dribble and try and create a play that's just not there. And it's reflected negatively on his decision-making skills. 

While it's something that still haunts him from time to time, Napier will have to do a whole lot less in the pros, which can allow him to focus on his strengths as a shooter and setup man. 

Napier has legitimate point guard vision as a pick-and-roll facilitator and drive-and-dish setup man off penetration. The hole in his passing game has been his reluctance to give up the ball, but again, with NBA veterans surrounding him, and his playing time not guaranteed, you'd imagine his willingness to pass will increase. 


Another reason to bet on Napier is that reliable three-point stroke he's had for the majority of his four-year career. He's going to finish his time at Connecticut having made at least two three-pointers a game on 39 percent shooting from deep in back-to-back years.

Off the bounce, he's shown he can rise, separate and fire a jumper with pull-ups or step-backs in the mid-to-long range. That jumper is ultimately going to act as Napier's flotation device as a pro, given his struggles finishing inside or around the key.

It's also going to make him a weapon in the popular pick-and-roll game, where he can make defenders pay for going under screens. And with a comfortable catch-and-shoot release, he's a threat spotting up off the ball as well.

His skill set is there, and it's got four years worth of seasoning and development. 

Napier will have seen a ridiculous amount of reps over his college career before playing his first NBA game. In 2013-14, only Providence's Bryce Cotton has logged more individual minutes. 

He's seen it all, whether it's been as a role player alongside guys like Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummund, or as a star floor general for a Final Four participant. And in both roles, he's excelled at the highest possible level. 

At this point, it just seems his game and confidence are strong enough to help neutralize some of his physical limitations. I'm no longer convinced that a 6'1", 180-pound body will keep him from making it as a pro.

Forget about upside—if I'm a team looking for some immediate point guard depth, as opposed to a boom-or-bust project who might be good in 2020, I'm targeting Napier as an option in that No. 20 to No. 40 range. And I'm considering him a bargain after No. 30.

My money is on Napier to make it and ultimately stick around the league as a serviceable point guard.

2014 NBA Draft Big Board
Rank Prospect School/Country Position Year
1 Joel Embiid Kansas C Freshman
2 Andrew Wiggins Kansas SF Freshman
3 Jabari Parker Duke SF/PF Freshman
4 Dante Exum Australia PG/SG 1995
5 Noah Vonleh Indiana PF Freshman
6 Julius Randle Kentucky PF Freshman
7 Marcus Smart Oklahoma State PG/SG Sophomore
8 Aaron Gordon Arizona SF/PF Freshman
9 Dario Saric Croatia SF/PF 1994
10 Willie Cauley-Stein Kentucky C Sophomore
11 Tyler Ennis Syracuse PG Freshman
12 Nik Stauskas Michigan SG Sophomore
13 Clint Capela Switzerland PF 1994
14 Mario Hezonja Croatia SG/SF 1995
15 Gary Harris Michigan State SG Sophomore
16 Zach LaVine UCLA SG Freshman
17 Cleanthony Early Wichita State SF Senior
18 Doug McDermott Creighton SF Senior
19 Adreian Payne Michigan State PF Senior
20 Jusuf Nurkic Bosnia C 1994
21 Rodney Hood Duke SF Sophomore
22 Montrezl Harrell Louisville PF Sophomore
23 Kyle Anderson UCLA PG/SF Sophomore
24 T.J. Warren North Carolina State SF Sophomore
25 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Arizona SF Freshman
26 Jerami Grant Syracuse SF/PF Sophomore
27 P.J. Hairston Texas Legends (D-League) SG
28 Shabazz Napier Connecticut PG Senior
29 K.J. McDaniels Clemson SF Junior
30 Jordan Adams UCLA SG Sophomore

Bleacher Report

 

Heatin' Up

Aaron Harrison, Kentucky, 6'6", SG, Freshman

Harrison has caught fire at just the right time for Kentucky. He's nailed 13 of his 24 three-point attempts in the tournament, including four big ones in the second half against Michigan that lifted his team to the Final Four. 

At 6'6", Harrison has excellent size and ball skills, along with a fairly refined offensive game. He's got deep range, a pull-up game and the ability to hit runners on the move. He has also shown he can create offense with the ball or finish off it. 

Given the impact he's made on Kentucky's run, expect scouts to focus in on Harrison during the Final Four. It should be a chance for him to move the needle. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

 

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin, 7'0", C, Junior

Frank the Tank has made quite the name for himself this postseason. Nobody seemed to care about Kaminsky when he dropped 43 points on North Dakota, 25 against Michigan or 28 against Michigan State prior to the NCAA tournament. But now he's the man for the Final Four-bound Badgers after pouring in 28 against Arizona in the Elite Eight, and the buzz has started to strengthen.

At 7'0", Kaminsky plays more of a stretch-4 game, where he can knock down jumpers from behind the arc or score from the high post. He's got pretty good footwork too. He has shown he can throw up a pump fake before putting the ball on the deck and scoring off the dribble. 

The question is whether or not Kaminskly has the lateral quickness to guard the perimeter or the strength to man the interior at the NBA level. He also brings in just 6.4 boards a game, an awfully low number for a 7-footer. Still, if he keeps shooting it well and shows he can score against Kentucky's big front line, he's bound to draw some second-round looks if he chooses to enter the draft.

Jae C. Hong

 

Coolin' Off

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin, 6'8", SF, Sophomore

Where did Sam Dekker go?

To his credit, he's playing within Wisconsin's winning offense without jeopardizing its flow for individual stats. But Dekker just really hasn't stood out the past month or so of the season. Some games, you have to count the guys on the floor to see if he's out there. He's scored seven points against both Arizona and Baylor, and his three-point percentage has now fallen to 32.3 percent. Dekker is a nice all-around player, but he just doesn't have that one standout strength to really attract much NBA attention.

He'll either need a big breakout Final Four or another year in school.

 

Update Abroad

Dario Saric, Croatia, 6'10", SF/PF, (b. 1994)

There have been conflicting reports regarding Dario Saric's future intentions, with the last one coming from Draftexpress' Jonathan Givony, who tweeted that he was told "it's almost certain that Dario Saric will declare for this year's draft."

However, David Pick of Eurobasket followed with remarks made by Saric's father, who claimed his son isn't ready for the NBA:

Saric, the Adriatic League leader in scoring and rebounding, now has everyone's attention, as many expected him to declare after he pulled out of the draft last second in 2013. 

This story remains fluid, as nobody really seems to know exactly what's going on. Keep your ears out—if Saric does declare, he's going to get heavy consideration as a lottery option. 

 

Clint Capela, Switzerland, 6'10", PF, (b. 1994)

Capela has been our biggest riser of the international prospects this season, and he might not be done.

He just went for 17 points, 11 boards and two blocks on one missed shot in 25 minutes in a win over Limoges on April 1. 

With explosive athleticism, 6'10" size and a massive 7'3" wingspan, Capela has the chance to make a living in the NBA paint as a finisher, rebounder and shot-blocker. 

Look out for the Nike Hoops Summit on April 12, where scouts will be dialed in to see how Capela performs against the top incoming college freshmen.

 

Fourth-Quarter Thoughts

  • North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo has decided to declare for the NBA draft after what seemed like another unsuccessful attempt to try and boost his stock. However, he just might be the type of player who thrives with better talent around him, where he can play to his strengths, as opposed to having to score like he did at North Carolina. Now a junior, it might be tough for him to crack the first round, but I'd consider him a value pick on a non-guaranteed second-round contract.
  • ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported that Colorado guard Spencer Dinwiddie is leaning toward entering the draft despite the ACL tear he suffered just a few months ago. It's really his only move, considering he'd miss most of next season at Colorado anyway recovering. He was having a terrific season before going down, and as a 6'6" scoring point guard, his NBA appeal is obvious. Still, I'd find it hard to imagine a team using a first-round pick on Dinwiddie, whose lack of athleticism limits his long-term upside, while his injury prevents him from making an immediate impact. However, he does have first-round talent, and if a team has the luxury of stashing him on the bench, we could be talking about a steal a few years down the road. 
  • With rumors, per ESPN's Chad Ford, that Duke's Jabari Parker might be leaning toward returning to school, the 2014 draft board could be in for a damaging hit. Of all the top prospects in the class, I'm not sure there's a better bet than Parker, who looks to be the safest prospect thanks to a refined offensive game and pro-ready body. If Parker does return, expect the chances of Kansas' Andrew Wiggins going No. 1 to skyrocket.
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