How Bright Is the NBA Future for UConn Star Shabazz Napier?

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 05: Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies drives to the basket as Kasey Hill #0 of the Florida Gators during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at AT&T Stadium on April 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Dynamic point guard Shabazz Napier has carried Connecticut to the 2014 NCAA crown, and now he's approaching the threshold of his NBA career.

In just a couple of months, he'll officially become a professional, as most scouts and experts are in agreement that he'll be a late first- or early second-round draft pick. With 21.2 points and 4.5 assists per game throughout the Big Dance, he delivered a strong audition for the Association during the Huskies' championship run.

He's an unquestioned star and leader at the college level, but how much success can he achieve in the NBA? How big will his role be, and what does his ceiling look like?

Throughout the 2013-14 season and especially in March Madness, Napier has showcased a high level of skill offensively, including an assortment of shot-creating skills that will translate to the next level.

His lateral ball-handling moves include a smooth crossover and a potent in-and-out dribble that puts defenders on skates when he attacks them with momentum.

When he wants to create separation north to south, he can use change-of-pace and change-of-dribble speed to freeze defenders via hesitation moves. If that doesn't work, he can hit them with a filthy step-back maneuver to get room for a jumper.

Watch him use an east-west move (crossover) followed by a north-south move (step-back) to completely shake his man:

Although he's not a top-tier athlete with blinding quickness or aerial prowess, Napier will be able to pull off most of these moves in the NBA because he's so polished and fluid when implementing them.

And when he manufactures a window of space, he'll confidently shoot. Napier wasn't the most efficient mid-range shooter at UConn, but that's mostly due to him forcing shots while carrying the offense. In the NBA, he won't feel as much pressure to put up off-balance shots or continually bail his team out.

When he gets room to drive toward the bucket, he'll oblige. He's not going to fly over people to score, but he'll shield with his body and adjust his shot in midair when he needs to.

From beyond the arc, his shooting skills certainly will translate to the pros, although he won't dominate opponents from deep. Napier has hit 40 percent of his triples in each of the past two seasons, drastically improving from 33 percent as a freshman and 36 percent as a sophomore.

David J. Phillip

What do all these scoring traits mean to an NBA executive or coach?

He's not going to be a conservative backup on a good team. He won't merely be a caretaker of the offense.

Napier will take control, and he's going to look for his shot while he's in the game. For better or worse, he's going to aggressively attack and try to creatively generate offense for his team.

Considering his skill level, that's the kind of approach coaches like to see in a backup.

As a passer, Napier has been productive but somewhat inconsistent throughout his UConn career. When he became the primary offensive option as a junior, his assist-per-minute rate went down.

Although he's dishing fewer than five assists per game this season, scouts aren't worried about his ability to do some facilitating. He won't be quite as much of a scorer in the NBA, and he'll use his creative ball-handling to help set up his teammates.

That being said, Napier isn't a brilliant, elite passer. He's not the type of guard who consistently drops dimes from the point or makes advanced plays once he gets into the teeth of the defense. Most of his passes come from driving and kicking out or operating the pick-and-roll, which is fine.

If Napier's got talented handles and shooting, along with solid passing skills, then why isn't he projected as a starting point guard or star in the NBA?

Ultimately, he doesn't possess the size, athleticism and intricate floor-general capabilities.

For obvious reasons, people want to compare him to former UConn star Kemba Walker. With similar stature, ball-handling skills and aggressive playing styles—not to mention nearly identical step-back jumpers—fans are hoping Napier can make the same transition to the pros.

Walker has thrived in the NBA, averaging nearly 18 points and six assists per game for each of the past two seasons. Why can't his Huskies successor do the same?

Speed. Explosiveness.

Walker's got a bunch of it, Napier not so much. Walker has that extra gear when crossing over and blowing by defenders, and he also sports a near-40" vertical (39.5"). The additional spring in his step allows him to make plays against good stoppers, and it makes him more competitive around the rim.

Napier's lack of elite explosiveness will also hurt him a little on the defensive end, where it takes a ton of quickness to slow down today's NBA quarterbacks. I don't have much faith that he could slow down the top guards for a whole game.

As Adam Zagoria of recently implored, let's just appreciate Napier and Walker for who they are individually.

A more realistic NBA ceiling comparison for Napier? Chicago Bulls guard D.J. Augustin.

The 6'0" Texas product was a starter for two years in Charlotte, but he's been more of a rotational reserve for the playoff-caliber teams he's played on recently.

He's a skilled ball-handler, well-equipped three-point shooter and proficient passer. Like Napier, he's not an outstanding athlete but has enough skill and footwork to create in half-court scenarios. He averages 10.1 points per game over his career but is scoring a career-high 14.6 points 

If Napier can improve his point guard polish, he could provide a similar impact to his NBA club.

He could potentially be one of the best backups in the league, thereby making him a borderline starter depending on the situation. He'll be a great offensive asset coming off the bench, as well as a crafty defender who will make the most of his physical wares.

It's reasonable to believe Napier could see around 25 minutes per game in his prime, averaging double-digit scoring and roughly four assists per night.

Not too shabby for a guy projected to go in the late first or early second round on draft night.


Dan O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.

Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR