For one night, Shabazz Napier was the brightest star in the basketball world.
OK, maybe that's partially because the NBA not-so-coincidentally failed to schedule any games on Monday. Fine. That doesn't take away from his one night.
On Monday, Napier got to experience a feeling that maybe only 100 basketball players in history have. He scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and dimed out three scores to teammates. He hit off-the-dribble threes from South Texas. He put life and limb on the line, careening off 5-star blue shirts and onto the AT&T Stadium floor, knocking down mind-boggling, say-a-prayer layups.
He was the best player on what will forever be known as 2014's best team in college basketball, as Connecticut pulled away late in the second half for a 60-54 win over Kentucky. It was a game that oscillated violently between captivating and unwatchable. Each thunderous James Young dunk was matched by an Andrew Harrison turnover. It was the perfect encapsulation of the college game in many ways, both in its possession-to-possession variance and exposure of the farcical nature of the "student-athlete."
It provided numerous narrative frameworks. From condemnation of John Calipari's team-building strategies to Kevin Ollie's inevitable NBA offers to the "will they or won't they stay?" narratives that always come with Calipari-led teams.
And yet every conversation, as it's been wont to do during the last three weeks, came back to Napier. Whether it was to express astonishment of the latest David beating a team full of Goliaths (Kentucky at times had no player shorter than 6'6" on the floor). Or simply to laugh at how quickly Jim Nantz skated away the awkward postgame interview in which Napier was awarded the tournament's Most Outstanding Player (#HungryHuskies).
Or, most interestingly, to discuss what comes next.
The answer, on the most basic level, is easy: a massive parade that will assuredly send Derek the RA to a psych ward, followed by the beginning of preparation for the NBA draft. But where he fits within that strata is a question worth further exploration.
Napier headed into March as a known quantity. He was the dude who had been chucking up a ton of bad shots at UConn for the past four years, played pretty good defense and was probably smaller than his listed 6'0" height. Teams liked him enough to give him a grade in the middle of the second round, but given the fickle nature of the NBA's second round, it wouldn't have been a shock to see him fall into the 50s.
Three weeks later, we have this:
No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014
Napier snuck into the First Round of the @ESPN Mock Draft when we weren't looking. Now #28 pick.— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) April 8, 2014
Big Board 8.0 is here. Wiggins is still No. 1. Tourney star Shabazz Napier make his 1st appearance http://t.co/12tr11TT9f (insider)— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) April 8, 2014
Not to mention all of the understandably ridiculous analysis that comes from your average Twitter analyst. These are not dumb people. LeBron James knows a good basketball player when he sees one. In the last three weeks, Napier has gone from potentially having to scrap and claw just for a chance to avoid the D-League to possibly tasting the riches of a fully guaranteed first-round NBA contract.
Here's the point where we need to pump the breaks.
If you watched the NCAA tournament and came away astounded with Napier as a player, the reality is that you just haven't been paying attention. Napier was who he's been all season long—only with a critical uptick in efficiency. He shot 46.3 percent from the floor in the NCAA tournament, more than a three percent increase from his season-long total. His long-range shooting was especially improved, as Napier hit four three-pointers in four of Connecticut's final five games.
But Napier has always been among the nation's streakiest players. The senior guard went for 30, 27 and 26 in successive games during the ACC regular season, the largest outcome coming against Louisville. Balling out in an extended six-game sample like this is admittedly rare, but it's easy to forget his 7-of-22 performance against Saint Joseph's or his 12-point night against Florida in retrospect.
These are, in some ways, just as telling as his performance Monday night. We live in a culture where everything has to be the best or the very worst at this moment. And that's the absolute worst way to evaluate an NBA prospect. Samples are tricky at the collegiate level already. The seasons are short, teams schedule non-conference throwaways and guys are constantly leaving early.
So to ignore one of the rare instances where we do have a significant sample, as with Napier, it's a disservice to the draft process. And when looking through an objective lens, Napier is still a second-round prospect.
Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis are all easily superior prospects and potential lottery picks. Zach LaVine is safely ahead as well if you want to crop him in with the point guards, though I evaluate him long term as a 2. I've moved him ahead of Jahii Carson and really hope Andrew Harrison stays for another year, so Napier is fighting with Elfrid Payton to be the fourth-ranked point guard. If the aforementioned trio is off the board and the draft falls in a certain way, it'd be in now way offensive if Napier latched on with one of the last couple picks of Round 1.
Just some facts to note: Napier is small and not an elite leaper; he's going to have way more trouble defending at the next level; his propensity for gambling on both ends will frustrate coaches; point guard is the NBA's deepest position, lessening organizational patience; he'll top out at average (at best) finishing around the rim; he'll be 23 years old in July.
None of those traits seem very likely to change. Even with all of the maturity talk surrounding Napier, he's still at times a wildly immature player on the floor. Having teammates who are better should help him, but players with a propensity for dribbling 15 or 20 seconds of a shot clock out don't typically break from those habits easily.
Watching the whole season, not just March, matters.
Where should Shabazz Napier be drafted?
Apologies for the seemingly obvious statement, but NBA draft history is littered with teams holding their March biases in June. Joe Alexander works at Burger King right now for all I know, and he was the No. 8 pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
More recent examples like Gorgui Dieng, Marquis Teague and even Napier's predecessor, Kemba Walker, vaulted themselves up draft boards thanks to team success. These players have varying levels of success at the NBA level, but you'd have to be a rube to not see through the fallacy of overrating a six-game sample.
I'm not saying Napier won't succeed at the next level. He's tough, has a quick first step and is strong creating out of the pick-and-roll. I suspect he'll be just fine as a third or fourth guard coming off the bench if he finds the right situation. But that's his ceiling. NBA players don't typically peak until they're in their mid-20s, but Napier is getting pretty close to that age.
He mostly is who he is at this point. For Connecticut, that was more than good enough to send Storrs rioting into the night. For the NBA, though, there are still very real concerns about how and where Napier fits.
Don't let the Madness get to you.
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