NEW YORK — LeBron James saw what he did. We all saw what he did. As a junior, Shabazz Napier pulled one overtime rabbit out of a hat after another. As a senior, Napier took a team that nobody picked for the Final Four and led UConn to a national championship.
That's why LeBron tweeted on April 7, "No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier." Caught up in the whirlwind of a college finish, some might have disagreed, but nobody called James a fool.
And, so, there LeBron was again Thursday night, about 10:10, tweeting, "My favorite player in the draft! #Napier."
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- Pictures: 2014 NBA Draft In Brooklyn
- UConn's Napier Drafted By Hornets, Traded To Heat; Daniels To Toronto At No. 37
- Rewind: Follow The NBA Draft As UConn Stars Wait For The Call
- Pictures: UConn Players In The NBA Draft
- Pictures: UConn Men's Basketball 1,000-Point Club
- Pro Basketball
- Shabazz Napier
See more topics »
As Napier sat there at Barclays Center during the first round of the NBA draft, sat there too long, point guards taller, faster, brawnier, with more leaping ability, definitely younger, were selected ahead of him.
In April, during one special weekend in Texas, Shabazz got his college degree in basketball. Won it all. And then in early May, Shabazz got his college degree in sociology in Storrs. Did his school, did college athletics proud by sticking around for four years and walking off the stage in cap and gown.
And, sure enough, in late June, he got his degree in NBA reality. A handful of guards capable of playing the point went before Napier. LeBron might be the best player in the game, but there obviously are a lot of people in the game who feel they know a lot more about basketball than he does.
The biggest regret of LeBron's career, of course, came in Connecticut. A lot of folks forget that it was inside the Greenwich Boys Club in the summer of 2010 that ESPN and LeBron co-authored The Decision. Co-authored the shameless hourlong tribute to hype and narcissism that ended with him finally announcing, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach." Some folks never forgave him for that night. Some folks never watched him become more and more a man. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear.
For a minute, it got giddy. The Charlotte Hornets drafted Napier at No. 24. Napier and Kemba Walker together again? The hero of 2011 and the hero of 2014 joining up again in the Carolina pines? Folks back in Connecticut were hyperventilating. Hey, maybe the Hornets could play some regular season games at the XL Center like the Celtics once did. It all sounded too good to be true. And it was. Reports almost immediately surfaced that the Heat had put together a deal to acquire Napier.
Pat Riley and the Heat really were serious. The reports from a few days earlier were true. They really did want Napier badly enough to trade up to get Shabazz.
Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron met in a Miami restaurant the other night, and if some contract concessions are made, maybe to make room for Carmelo Anthony, definitely to retool the Heat, chances are that LeBron will return to Miami. Certainly, the Heat and LeBron want Shabazz there. You see, Pat Riley and LeBron have done something wondrous. They watched the games. An old NBA guru and the game's best player know it's not all about the tape measure. You can't put a number on heart. You can't put a number on leadership.
"I don't know if I'm bringing him back," Napier said. "I would love it. Me and LeBron's relationship, he's a great guy. I've been to his camps. Me and him chatted a few times at his camps."
Napier's agent had told him about LeBron's tweet of a few minutes earlier.
"It's just something special to know that one of the best players in the world thinks about you and appreciates your talent. That's something I'm humble for."
Obviously, LeBron's not going to put his career in one rookie's basket. It's a little absurd to think so. But with Mario Chalmers a free agent and with both Chalmers and Norris Cole showing too little when it mattered most in a postseason that ended with a Finals defeat to the magnificent Spurs, James clearly wants improvements if he's going to remain. And there are some scenarios that could throw up big playing time for Napier.
"The first thing that jumps off is the winning attitude," Napier said of leaving one championship culture for another. "When you compete at that high level, you want to win every single game. That winning attitude comes in the first day you arrive at that camp. On the first day you arrive to that organization, you want to work, and you want to prove you can get back there. Not to prove to anybody, but to yourself, to your teammates that you can get back there."
"There's always opportunity to do something great, and no matter if I was going to slide in as a starter or come off the bench, I'm still going to work hard," Napier said. "I'm going to compete. That's who I am."
The NBA draft is nothing if not a study in potential. Take a look at the top four-year players in the past six drafts. C.J. McCollum went 10th in 2013. Damian Lillard went sixth in 2012. Jimmer Fredette went 10th in 2011. Trevor Booker went 23rd in 2010. Terrence Williams went 11th in 2009. On Thursday night, Doug McDermott went 11th. And the guy who led UConn to the national championship? He went 13 picks later.
LeBron thought that Napier should be the top point guard taken. Napier came out and said he thought he was the best. Well, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Zach LaVine, Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ennis all were gone when Napier got drafted. I've got no real argument with Smart and Exum (whom I only know from video clips.) But LaVine, a lanky 6-5, didn't start for UCLA. And Payton — never met a man named Elfrid before — did everything including commit a zillion turnovers for Louisiana-Lafayette. But they're younger, and obviously teams are convinced that they have a bigger upside. Some may. And some won't. That's the nature of the draft. You don't know about 19-year-olds. Napier, with two national titles, who has carried a team, will be 23 in a few weeks. We know about Shabazz.
Toronto took a dude named Bruno Caboclo with its 20th pick. They say he's called the Brazilian Kevin Durant. Really? Is there a Bulgarian Durant? A Mongolian Durant? A Costa Rican Durant? Are we sure the 6-9 Bruno actually exists? This isn't a Sid Finch prank, is it? He's not confused with Bruno Mars or Bruno Sammartino, is he? No, no, no. He's real. There's a movie about him: Bruno.
Asked if he had a chip on his shoulder about a handful of point guards going before him, Napier answered, "The chip never leaves my shoulder. It will never leave my shoulder. That's what makes me who I am. What I said was not to belittle any other point guards. There's a reason why they're here. But I was just saying that because that's who I am.
"I wouldn't be Shabazz Napier if I wouldn't have said that. I believe it. I'm going to prove it."
As he spoke, another UConn great took to Instagram.
"Congratulations to my fellow husky," Ray Allen wrote. "Bienvinido a Miami. #UCONN."
I'm thinking LeBron is right this time.