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Kemba in waiting: Napier's bench play sparks UConn

by | CBS Sports

HOUSTON -- Obviously, nobody in or around the UConn program is eager for Kemba Walker to leave. Even opponents, if magically stripped of self-interest, would have to admit that the spectacular play of No. 15 in blue and white makes the game better. Each individual game, and the sport as a whole.

But Kemba Walker will leave Storrs. The clock is ticking, and right around midnight on Monday could be the start of a new chapter for Walker and for the school he's called home for the past three seasons. It will be an occasion for sadness and reflection for the Huskies, but not a time to panic. You see, Kemba has been training his successor well.

Freshman guard Shabazz Napier almost didn't take his chance at the big time. As an 18-year-old, he considered staying at Boston's Lawrence Academy for another season and honing his skills. The extra work was not needed, as it turns out -- he was ready and willing to learn at the feet of the master when the opportunity arose. He re-classified and then committed to UConn after taking just the one official recruiting visit.

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"He liked that it was the Big East, that his family could come see him play," said Napier's AAU coach, Mo Vazquez. "But what was really important to him was that he knew he'd be backing up Kemba Walker. He knew that coming in."

That statement reveals plenty about the workmanlike approach Napier has brought to his backup role at Connecticut. With Walker and Lamb snagging the lion's share of minutes at guard, Napier has come off the bench -- never any player's favorite thing to do. Napier looked at it as a vital learning opportunity.

"He gets to go head-to-head with Walker in practice," Vazquez said. "It helped Shabazz, because I can tell he's found so much maturity."

There's an old trope that says there are no freshmen by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around. It's a shopworn cliche, but it makes a certain amount of sense. The Huskies have played 40 games to reach this point.

That's a lot of game time for someone who was playing in high school this time last year.

"For someone to understand how much I've grown means a lot to me," Napier said Sunday, the day off before Monday's championship game. "In high school, you feel as though you know everything. When you get to college you have to start all over, and that's hard for some people. For me, I feel like if I think I know everything, I've gotta be wrong. I have a Hall of Fame coach and a great player in front of me. There's no reason for me to act like I know everything."

Calhoun described the process of teaching his young team as something akin to tough love.

"The key is, they don't care what you say to them as long as they know where it's coming from," Calhoun said. "They know the idea is to make them better. If you get on a kid and it doesn't come from a place of caring, they can tell."

Calhoun instilled the wisdom and mental toughness, Walker taught him the moves and the proper work ethic. But Napier credits one other member of the UConn staff with much of his growth over the past few months.

"We picked up Kevin Ollie, a great player in his day," Shabazz said, referring to the first-year assistant coach who played for Calhoun from 1991-95 and only recently ended a 12-year NBA career. "He's been the best mentor I've ever had in my life, just because I'm just starting to listen and realize what I don't know."

If anyone knows what a young player can make of himself through smarts and determination, it's Ollie. Undrafted coming out of UConn in 1995, Ollie played in the CBA for two seasons, biding his time until the NBA noticed him. The Dallas Mavericks gave Ollie a shot, and he bounced around the league for another decade, playing 82 games for the Cavaliers in LeBron James' rookie season before becoming a starter for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2005. He played 25 games as a veteran backup for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-10 before filing for retirement and joining Calhoun’s staff.

Freshman Shabazz Napier will find a lot more time to showcase his skills next season as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker. (AP)  
Freshman Shabazz Napier will find a lot more time to showcase his skills next season as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker. (AP)  
Ollie's help no doubt will come in handy again if Walker leaves after the season, which seems to be as sure a thing as ever has existed. With Walker gone, Napier will become a starter, and his role will change. As a bench option, Napier does the little things: 10 points one night, six rebounds another. His defensive pressure has Calhoun labeling him as a "pest," which is a compliment coming from the tough guy from Braintree, Mass.

In a news conference, with his coach looking on, Napier joked that Calhoun probably would like to get out there and play with his team, but that there would be little point, since Napier would have to lock him down.

"This is the first time he's gotten credit for his defense," Vazquez said. "For us he was more of a scorer, but when we played the big games, against [Duke commit] Austin Rivers and Co., we told him he had to shut the guards down. He thrived on that. He's always had it in him."

Scoring once again will become a huge part of Napier's game when he becomes a UConn starter, but don't expect it to define his game as it has with Walker. For one thing, Napier always will be looking for the open man, even as teams struggle to adapt to his quickness with the ball. In the semifinal against Kentucky, Napier penetrated, drew the defense and dropped the rock off to defense-minded senior center Charles Okwandu for an easy dunk. It's not every day you see a hotshot freshman pass up his own chances at glory for the dump-off to a seldom-used senior.

Humble, talented and heady Shabazz Napier is the heir apparent to Kemba Walker's starting guard spot. That, plus the development of his fellow freshmen Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb, should have Connecticut fans sleeping soundly at night, even after Superman decides to take his game to the NBA.


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