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Handle With Care: Shabazz Among UConn's Greatest Guards

Huskies Traditionally Strong In Backcourt, And Napier Is No Exception

By PAUL DOYLE, pdoyle@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

10:30 AM EDT, March 28, 2014

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NEW YORK — The names jump off the pages of the UConn record book, some from the distant past and some cashing NBA paychecks this season.

There are prolific scorers such as Wes Bialosuknia in the 1960s, Tony Hanson in the 1970s, Ray Allen in the 1990s, and Ben Gordon in 2000s. There are pure, pass-first point guards, from current head coach Kevin Ollie in the '90s to guys such as Taliek Brown and Marcus Williams over the past decade or so.

And there are the guards that operated in both worlds: Kemba Walker, Chris Smith, Tate George, Khalid El-Amin, and, of course, Shabazz Napier.

Yet as UConn steps into the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, facing Iowa State Friday at Madison Square Garden, Napier might take a place near the top of the guard list. UConn has a long history of great guard play — and, specifically, great point guard play — but Napier is distinguishing himself.

Consider the numbers. The senior has played 139 games (UConn has won 100 of them), which is second behind Kevin Freeman (140) for the most in program history. This season, he leads the team in scoring (17.8), assists (4.8), rebounds (5.9) and steals (1.8).

Overall, he is fifth in program history in scoring with 1,881 points. Next on the list is Allen (1,922) and Hanson (1,990). The leaders are Smith (2,145) and Richard Hamilton (2,036).

Napier is also third on the assist list with 628, trailing only Brown (722) and George (677). He was a member of an NCAA title team as a freshman, was the American Athletic Conference player of year as a senior and persevered through a season when the program was banned from postseason play, while steadily becoming the team's leader.

So just where does he fit on the Mount Rushmore of UConn guards?

"I don't think another guard has been through the ups and downs that Shabazz went through," Ollie said Thursday. "Winning the national championship his freshman year, kind of having the year he had with all the talent we had … and then going through the ban and still carrying the banner. He's done an amazing job.

"I know in a lot of stats, nobody has played or did the things he's done. ... Nobody's led us in points and rebounds and assists in one year. So, you've got to put him up there. I don't know where he sits, but you've got to put him up there."

Allen was a productive scorer and has built a Hall of Fame resume in the NBA, but he didn't win an NCAA title. El-Amin's swagger helped will UConn to its first title in 1999 and the 2004 championship team had a traditional backcourt, with Brown distributing and Gordon scoring.

Really, though, the discussion of great UConn guards begins with Walker. His sublime performance in 2011 was among the great shows by any college basketball player.

Walker averaged 23.5 points, 4.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds while carrying UConn to an improbable title run. In three seasons, he scored 1,783 points (eighth in program history) and had 460 assists (11th).

"One of the greatest gifts he had, he was fearless, he played with a great joy, and once he got a green light, more and more, he never had fear," former coach Jim Calhoun said. "You're going to make a decision, it may be right or it may be wrong, but you've got to make it. Kemba played the game without fear, and that allowed him not to think about the moment, but about what was going to happen after he made the shot."

Don't think that approach didn't leave an impression on Napier, who was Walker's teammate for one season.

"That was big, that was huge," Ollie said. "He was kind of like Kemba's shadow. … I think he learned a lot. Kemba was a great scorer, a great competitor, but he was a great leader, too. He was an assassin, but he was always thinking about his teammates and reflecting all the attention on his teammates. I think Shabazz is getting that feeling now, where it's not all about him and his teammates have a big part in his success. He's letting the world know that, which is a great attribute for a leader."

Napier said Thursday that he learned about leadership and character from Walker, who imparted lessons on keeping the entire roster together and distributing the ball on the court, emphasizing a team-first approach.

"So it's not what Shabazz is doing, it's what everybody's doing collectively," Napier said.

Don't discount the lineage in the program. Villanova coach Jay Wright recently praised Napier as one of the best ball-fakers in the country, a skill that was handed down through a few generations of UConn guards.

"I learned that from Kemba Walker," Napier said. "He did the 'step back, pump fake, got you in the air, got to the foul line.' When you learn something from a great player, and I believe he learned it from A.J. Price ... you tend to use it when you need it."

So there you have it. Price, the point guard from 2007 through 2009, taught the move to Walker and Kemba passed it on to Napier. This season, Napier is mentoring freshman Terrence Samuel.

"Sophomore year, [Napier] couldn't understand why everybody didn't listen to him like they listened to Kemba," Calhoun said. "Because you aren't Kemba, I kept telling him that. 'You might be someday.' He's getting awfully close to that someday. … He may be the most valuable player there is in the country. As a leader, giving of himself, he stands close to Kemba. Now he's going to take a couple of more steps"

Calhoun often had backcourts with two hybrid guards, much like Ollie is deploying with Napier and Ryan Boatright this season. That's what makes straight comparisons difficult — Napier is the team's distributor, yet he carries the scoring load. He's not the pure point guard like, say, Brown. He's not the pure scorer like Allen or Gordon.

"He's a guy who not only can score, but he can also score when the game is on the line," longtime UConn radio analyst Wayne Norman said. "I think Khalid El-Amin was one of those guys, a guy who led the team in assists, but when you needed him to make a big basket, he could make a big basket.

"Some of the UConn guards over the years, like a Kevin Ollie, were more facilitators. [Ollie's] job was to get the ball to Ray Allen. Other guys, like Shabazz and Kemba, their job is both to set their teammates up, but you look at them to score. Both with penetration and from the perimeter, and Shabazz does it as well as anybody."

Norman, who has been watching UConn hoops for more than 40 years, said Walker set himself apart in 2011.

"I've never seen a UConn player put a team on his back the way he did," Norman said.

But Napier's story is not over. If the Huskies win the next few games and Napier does something special, he might climb to Walker's level.

For his part, Calhoun emphasizes wins when evaluating players. He calls Napier's win total "mind-boggling" and calls him one of the most important leaders in program history.

"He's going to have to go on that list," Calhoun said. "If it weren't for last year, he would have made four NCAA Tournaments. He's got a championship ring in his pocket, a Big East championship in his pocket, he's player of the year in the American Conference. He's going to be one of the great players we've ever had."

Another factor when judging Napier? He could have left when Calhoun retired and the program was facing a postseason ban, but he stuck around and embraced a leadership role under Ollie.

"I grew up with a loyal family and I continue to still have that loyal family with the University of Connecticut," said Napier, a native of Roxbury, Mass.

Ollie said Napier was his "No. 1 recruit" after he took over as coach. He worked hard to convince the guard that staying was worthwhile, that playing under a former point guard could be beneficial. And besides Ollie, the Huskies coaching staff has two other former UConn point guards — Ricky Moore and Karl Hobbs.

"He's just a great player," Ollie said. "When I have the ball in his hands at the end of the game or at a crucial time, I couldn't think of a better guard to do it, because he's not scared of the moment and he's not scared to fail, because failure leads to success. And he's done a great job for us."