The most talented of the Miami Heat’s point guards, Shabazz Napier, will have to wait his turn before embracing the starting role. Incumbents Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are more settled leading the offense and, based on his Summer League play, Napier doesn't seem ready to take that on.
A lot more than his bank account balance has changed for Napier since he was drafted to the NBA. When he was traded to the Miami Heat after being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, Napier thought he would be playing with admirer LeBron James.
He's one of the best players in the world. So if me going there helps him come back, it just betters our chances of being a complete team. But at the end of the day, my job is to get to improve and work on my game so when it comes to the stage where it's my first game, I'm ready to compete, and I'm prepared.
Miami’s situation changed when James left for the Cleveland Cavaliers. In an effort to maintain a competitive team, Pat Riley re-signed the core of those champion squads, including Chalmers.
Now the Heat have all three point guards, providing plenty of depth but also real parity from first- to third-string. From a scoring standpoint, they all deserve a shot at the starting job. But without James, who facilitated so much of Miami’s offense the past four years, the point guard will be relied on more to initiate offense. That is where Chalmers, and to a lesser degree Cole, have the advantage over Napier.
Indeed, Chalmers struggled with just that in the Finals and didn’t do enough scoring to make up for it. Cole has come a long way in his development as a scorer in three seasons but is more of a dynamic scorer and tough defender in the mold of Patrick Beverley than a facilitator.
But if Chalmers and Cole’s ability to lead the offense is inconsistent, Napier’s is nonexistent based on what we saw in Summer League.
In 10 games in Orlando and Las Vegas, Napier showed a penchant for shooting more so than facilitating. He put up 107 shots during Summer League, converting on just 37 (34.6 percent) of them, and went 11-of-48 from the three-point line (22.9 percent). Though he did deliver some highlight passes, he struggled to find teammates consistently, finishing Summer League with 39 assists and 43 turnovers.
That averages out to 9.8 points (on 3.7-of-10.7 shooting), 3.9 assists and 4.3 turnovers per game. His shot selection was wild, and he didn’t seem in control, or often conscious, of where his teammates were in a half-court offense.
Many will write this off, saying Summer League doesn’t matter, but ESPN’s Kevin Pelton did a study on how Summer League play translates to the regular season that says otherwise.
According to Pelton (subscription required), rookie Summer League performance is a strong indication of their regular-season performance.
How a rookie plays in Summer League has a .463 correlation, which is nearly as predictive as their college statistics (.468). That’s a high correlation when you compare it to veterans who previously played in the league.
Veteran players who were in the league the previous season have an even smaller correlation of .101 between 2012 summer performance (as measured by my per-minute win percentage rating) and 2012-13. Once we account for how well these players were projected to play in 2012-13, their summer-league stats have zero predictive value.
This doesn’t mean Napier is a bust. Summer League performance is still far from a definitive indication of real success (remember when Hasheem Thabeet had a 21-point, 14-rebound, six-block game in 2010?).
However, Pelton’s numbers and Napier's struggles indicate that the 23-year-old will need some time to get used to the speed and complexity of the NBA game.
Further applying Pelton's study, Napier's college stats should indicate how he will translate to the NBA, too. He will likely cut down on his turnovers (averaged 2.4 per game at UConn) and will be a stealing machine (1.8 steals per game in college, 2.1 in Summer League).
His advanced stats last season at UConn resemble the comparable Isaiah Thomas' 2013-14 season.
Both players are in the J.R. Smith range of effective field-goal percentage, and their point guard stats (assist percentage, turnover rate, usage and win shares) are nearly identical.
From a scoring standpoint, Thomas and Napier are similarly dynamic. Both score most of their points from mid-range and near the rim and shoot three-pointers at an above-average rate. Most similarly, they both prefer going left.
However, Napier won't likely enjoy the same success that Thomas did his rookie season with the Kings.
Thomas earned the starting point guard spot over Jimmer Fredette, who didn't provide the same level of competition that Chalmers and Cole are sure to. While Thomas got starters minutes, Napier will likely get something nearer to 10-15 minutes per game.
For now, Napier figures to come off the bench as a flash-in-the-pan scorer whom Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can turn to should he have a hot hand.
Heat fans should curb their expectations, especially those who wanted the team to spend for Thomas, Kyle Lowry or Eric Bledsoe. Napier won't fill that void, but he has the talent to reach that level, and he's on a rookie contract (five years, $6.2 million; just $1.2 and $1.3 million his first two seasons).
If Thomas does reach his potential, he will be a far better investment than any free agent the Heat could have signed.
Statistics via basketball-reference.com, contract information via shamsports.com. Follow Wes Goldberg on Twitter @wcgoldberg.
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