By PAUL DOYLE, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
6:44 PM EDT, April 2, 2014
The mere mention of the name brings a smile to Shabazz Napier's face.
Kemba Walker, he says, is his big brother and basketball mentor. During their lone season as teammates at UConn, Napier shadowed Walker and took mental notes on an array of subjects, from performing in the waning moments of a close game to rallying his teammates in practice.
Napier was Walker's understudy during UConn's national title run in the 2010-11 season. Walker is now a budding NBA star with the Charlotte Bobcats, and Napier is doing his best impersonation of his friend, leading UConn to an unexpected NCAA Final Four berth.
From his perch in the NBA, Walker is hanging on every game as he watches his alma mater and his protege.
"He's been great all year," Walker said in a phone interview this week. "His poise is phenomenal at the point. When it's time to win the basketball game, you know, the last five minutes of the basketball game, he gets that basketball and he just controls it and runs the team. That's what a point guard does. That's what he's been doing. I've been watching him. His poise is great."
On Sunday, Walker sent this message from his Twitter account: "Best PG in the country. Shabazz Napier." That was more than just some social media bluster — Walker says he truly believes that Napier has become the best point guard in America.
Of course, Walker is admittedly biased. After all, the profile picture on his Twitter page is of Walker embracing former coach Jim Calhoun.
But UConn loyalty aside, Walker has been impressed by Napier.
"He makes all the best plays at the end of the game," Walker said. "That's what separates him from a lot of the other players around the country. That's something you can't teach, man. That's something you have to be born with, in my opinion. He's always had that ability. Now he's able to show it. It's great for him, I'm happy for him."
The narrative that's been written this spring is that Walker was the teacher and Napier the student during the 2010-11 season. That's mostly true, but Walker likes to remind people that Napier was hardly an overwhelmed, wide-eyed teenager as a freshman.
Napier averaged 7.8 points and 3.0 assists while playing an average of 23.8 minutes. He scored 23 points in one game and 18 in two others.
"When he was with us, he made some pretty big shots, he made some pretty big plays," Walker said. "Not only offensively, but defensively. He was great all-around for us. … He did so much for us. He's always been able to score, but he didn't have to when I was there. He's just putting it all together right now."
The other contribution from Napier?
"I feel like I learned a lot from him, as well," Walker said. "That's what players do, man. You know, he actually helped me a lot because he was really good as a freshman. To go up against him every day in practice, it was good for me as well."
In four NCAA Tournament games this year Napier is averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists. In 2010-11, through the first four tournament games, Walker averaged 26.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists. And in 2003-04, Ben Gordon, a shooting guard who had Taliek Brown at the point, was at 22.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists through the first four tournament games. The Huskies went on to win it all in 2004 and 2011. Brown is UConn's all-time assists leader with 722 in 134 games.
Walker said that Napier always exuded confidence, but that he was humble enough to ask questions and defer to more experienced players. Napier said that it wasn't easy taking the torch from Walker and that it took a few years before he truly felt like the leader of his team.
Napier said last weekend that these days, he finds himself hearkening back to what he learned from Walker — spreading the ball around, being vocal on and off the court, including all of the players in whatever the team is doing.
"He was like my little brother, man," Walker said. "I do think he learned a lot from me. I'm happy that he did. I'm happy that he wasn't the kind of kid that came in and stands there and thinks he knows everything. He wasn't like that. He was always willing to learn and he was always trying to get better. So that's why he's the great player that he is today."
"But he's also a natural-born leader. That kid is so good, he understands everything. It takes time to learn, it takes time to become a good leader. It took time for me, as well. I can tell he's doing a great job of leading because those guys are just following him right now. That's how it has to be."
Calhoun, speaking on the Madison Square Garden court Sunday after UConn's victory against Michigan State, put Napier in the same class as Walker. Napier always had a quiet confidence, Calhoun said, even when he was in Walker's shadow.
"He had that incredible, incredible belief in himself," Calhoun said. "Incredibly bright, incredible kid. His swagger, his positive arrogance about how good we are … translates to every guy on this team. He's very special."
"Shabazz is one of the great players in college basketball in the past 10 or 12 years. I haven't seen many kids like him. I had one — a guy named Kemba Walker was pretty good. Some other guys, great players. But he's a very special player. And his personality, he's got the biggest personality for a little guy."
Walker said he's proud of UConn's lineage of great point guards. He learned lessons from A.J. Price that he passed on to Napier.
Among the notable alumni at Madison Square Garden on Sunday were Khalid El-Amin and Brown, two of the better point guards in program history. Brown stood in the locker room amid the postgame celebration, marveling at UConn's run and Napier's ascension on the list of UConn point guards.
"I think he's up there. ... He's top three," Brown said. "He's just amazing. He's got a great IQ. He knows the game, he knows how to stop, go, change directions. He's got a jump shot. He can basically do everything you need your point guard to do."
And Brown said that Napier's freshman season with Walker was instrumental in his development.
"That year definitely helped him," Brown said. "And his whole four years, he's gotten better every year."
Walker's Bobcats are playing Cleveland on Saturday night, so he won't be watching the UConn-Florida national semifinal game. If UConn advances to Monday night's title game, Walker plans to be in Texas.
Is he surprised by the run, given how much has changed since he left? UConn, after all, has a different coach and is in a different conference since Walker was last a student.
"Hey, listen, UConn has always been one of the biggest programs and it always will be," Walker said. "You know, especially with Coach Ollie and his staff … they're going to try to get the best players and if not, they're going to rock with whoever they've got. And that's how it's going to be."
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