Special to ZAGSBLOG
HARTFORD, Conn. – Joel Embiid was still more of a soccer player when we first discovered Shabazz Napier.
Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle?
They were just starting to generate some interest from college coaches.
Napier three years ago?
He was cutting down the nets at the Final Four and winning a national championship as a freshman at UConn.
Napier — who scored a career-high 34 points to go with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals as the No. 24 Huskies beat No. 20 Memphis, 86-81 in overtime — accomplished more in his first year than any of the hot names on the tips of the college basketball establishment and many who have come and gone.
Napier’s won a Big East title, part of the great Kemba Walker-led run for UConn in 2011. He was part of that national championship team that beat Kentucky – a team led by Brandon Knight – en route to the finals, where the Huskies then beat Brad Stevens-coached Butler.
That seems like a lifetime ago in college basketball, a world of news faces every year. Especially this year, when the entire college word was focused on the latest batch of soon to be one-and-done players.
The preseason of college basketball was all about the freshmen coming into the game. The “Year of the Freshmen” is shaping up as a pretty good year for the seniors.
Doug McDermott of Creighton, C.J. Fair of Syracuse, Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati, Bryce Cotton of Providence and Russ Smith of Louisville are all long in the tooth. So is Napier.
The senior class isn’t sexy, but rolling out a starting five of those seniors would be a formidable team. No one talked about the seniors in November, it’s a good bet we’ll be talking about them all in March.
“They’re good,” Napier said. “It’s cool. I am not here for individual accolades. They (the freshmen) are good. Jabari Parker is a great talent; I think he’s the best out of all of them.”
Napier, once the freshman of note on a title team, is now the leading scorer on a Top 25 UConn team that is once again aiming for March glory. He’s averaging 17.3 points a game, leads the Huskies in assists (5.0) and rebounding (5.9) and is one of the best clutch players in the land.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has a pretty good senior guard in Joe Jackson, doesn’t have to be convinced on Napier’s ability. He watched twice as Napier has beaten the Tigers, including a tour de force on Saturday.
“Napier, man, he hit some big shots,” Pastner said. “Tough shots, contested shots.”
UConn is now 20-5 and for a team that won a national title three years ago, under the radar in this new era of college basketball. The Huskies are in the AAC and don’t play the brutal Big East schedule. That doesn’t make Napier any less of a talent as he recently pushed into the Top 10 on the UConn career scoring list. The senior guard is shooting 44.4 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3-point range.
Most of all, Napier does it when it’s needed. The Huskies destroyed USF by 43 points on Wednesday. Napier’s contribution? Seven points on two shots. When the Huskies needed scoring on Saturday? He went for a career-high scoring over 20 points for the ninth time this year and the second time over 30 points.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie doesn’t mince words when it comes to Napier.
“He’s a great player. He’s an All-American player,” Ollie said. “I know I might be biased, but he’s the best guard in America, to me, hands down. He just keeps focusing in on the things we need to do to win. He knows when it’s time to take over the game, or when to get DeAndre (Daniels) in the game, when to get (Ryan Boatright) in the game.”
Napier watched Walker take a team on his shoulders from the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament to 11-0 run that saw the Huskies win the Big East and NCAA tournament. Napier was his caddy that freshman year and marveled at his ability to get shots off.
Napier has now mastered it.
“The older you get, the more you get an edge,” Napier said. “You learn how to get to certain places. I remember as a freshman and used to say to Kemba, ‘How do you get into gaps?’ Now, I know how to do it.”
UConn followed up Napier’s freshman championship team with a disappointing sophomore year where the Huskies lost in the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament despite a team that had Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith on it as well as Napier and Boatright. The Huskies were banned from postseason play last year leaving Napier not having an NCAA tourney win since the Huskies beat Butler as a freshman.
The Huskies and Napier have an eye towards a March run, but the Boston area native is too savvy to look that far ahead.
“I am not thinking about that, I am thinking about Temple (on Thursday),” Napier said.