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The Napier Chronicles

Shabazz Napier's journey from good to great

Jared Wickerham

If you could draw up the perfect Bazzy play for Shabazz Napier, it would have been the one that ultimately won the game against Florida on Monday night.

It had every single element of Shabazz the player in it. There was the over dribbling that led to an effective double-team...that led to the almost magician-like dribble out of that double team, where Shabazz somehow split the two defenders like a defensive tackle slipping up the middle for a sack. Nine players out of 10 have the ball stripped at that point and lose the game on a turnover.

Then, there was the wild, unbalanced and, to a certain extent, unnecessary shot from just inside the three point line that clanked horribly off the side of the backboard, coming nowhere close to hitting the rim.

Finally there was Shabazz, standing right there for a DeAndre Daniels tip (a play that should be talked about almost as much as the final shot), and cooly putting the ball in the basket as time expired.

That's Shabazz. That's the amazing, adrenaline rush roller coaster ride it is to watch him play.

And, increasingly, it's become an absolute pleasure to watch.

I don't know that there has ever been a player like Napier in UConn history. I don't mean that in terms of talent or accomplishments. Unless Shabazz helps UConn win a national title this year, he can't hope to eclipse what Kemba Walker did in his three seasons, going to a Final Four in his first year and then leading a team to both a Big East and National championship in his junior season.

And the incredible wealth of talent UConn has shuffled through the doors over the years makes it difficult to believe Shabazz will ever become the best of the bunch. Ray Allen is a no-brainer Hall of Fame NBA player with two NBA Championship rings and guys like Rudy Gay and Andre Drummond are some of the more skilled basketball players in the world.

No, when I say we've never seen someone like Shabazz before, I mean the entire four-year journey he's been on since coming to Storrs.

It started in the 2010/2011 season, when Shabazz burst on the scene as Kemba's backup, but the two quickly established such a rapport that Shabazz garnered starter duties. He had some real eye-opening games early on, like 12 points, 4 assists, and great defense against Kentucky early in the season, and 18 points, 5 assists against Notre Dame at ND later on in the year. One of his best games came against Louisville, where he scored 23 points and was 5-11 from three.

Yet it's easy to forget now but Shabazz faded pretty badly toward the end of that season. Jeremy Lamb became the obvious Robin to Kemba's Batman and while Shabazz played pretty well in both the Big East and NCAA tourneys, he was easily overshadowed by Kemba and Lamb.

The 2011/2012 season started with a tremendous amount of hype. UConn had lost Kemba, but returned Lamb and most of the championship-winning team. Not only that, but they had landed one of the best recruits in the country, Connecticut's own Andre Drummond, who was so talented there were rumors Jim Calhoun put off retirement just to coach him.

The season turned out to be a huge disappointment, and the play of Napier was blamed for a lot of it. It was an unfair criticism as Shabazz put up good numbers (16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists per), but as point guard Napier failed to make the players around him better. While Lamb had showed himself to be a deadly shooter and late-game performer, Shabazz seemed on a personal mission to make it "his" team and take all the big, important shots.

That 2011/2012 year introduced us to Bad Shabazz. It was the dribble, dribble, dribble, take a mind-numbingly-long three, run back down the other end to play defense. It was always one part amazing, two parts awful.

What's worse, Shabazz seemed desperate to be Kemba 2.0 in every possible way. Despite having more talent around him and less of a resume than Walker, Shabazz treated every game like it was the season before. It made for disjointed, uneven efforts, and Shabazz looked like the reason.

It left the team on the losing end of a lot of games, and his teammates clearly frustrated.

While Kemba seemed a natural-born leader, Shabazz clearly struggled in the role. At one point, Napier even admitted that he "tried" to lead, but that few of his teammates listened.

After that year, while the numbers looked good, the results were terrible, and a large percentage of fans had turned sour on his Bazzness.

The perception was Napier was a "me-first" talent...a guy only interested in stroking his own ego. I'll admit, I felt exactly that way about him, and I wasn't alone.

Then came last year...the turning point.

Whatever reformation Shabazz needed to undergo, it began when he decided to stay at UConn through all the turmoil surrounding the program. While Napier had been inconsistent the year before, many, many, many programs would have taken a shot at the junior point guard, and Shabazz certainly had his options.

Yet, from day one, while many of his former teammates were doing their best rats off the Titanic impersonation, Napier stayed on board. UConn was his home, he insisted. He loved it in Storrs, loved the program, loved the coaches, and wanted to be part of the solution.

Right there, the worm began to turn for Shabazz.

His commitment to the program was backed up by his play on the court. Shabazz had all but exercised himself of his evil twin and was suddenly a mature, complete player who did everything well. Sure, there were still some momentary lapses-bad shots, lots of dribbling to nowhere-but that was suddenly the exception, not the rule. The norm was Shabazz making the right call, the right pass, taking the good shot, and always making the big play.

And while his leadership in 2011/2012 had always looked forced, it seemed to come with ease in 2012/2013. He commanded the floor, made his teammates better, and handled the pressure perfectly.

As we all know, UConn couldn't play for anything but pride last year, but Shabazz seemed to embrace that. He treated every game as if it were a statement. There was an unspoken chip on his shoulder, and it translated to the rest of the roster.

It took time. It happened little by little. Shabazz built that trust. He showed the fans he had learned from his mistakes. The feelings surrounding the player went from trepidation to comfort to downright love.

At the end of the year, with Shabazz playing on a bad leg, it would have been easy, even understandable for him to sit it out. One more win wasn't really going to make a big difference.

Instead, Shabazz fought through the pain, scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds, doled out four assists, and led UConn to an overtime win at home against Providence. It was a 20-win season...and it had a lot to do with Napier.

That was heart. That was championship determination, even if no trophy was on the line.

Fast forward to this year. There are no more questions about Shabazz. There are no more loud groans about the program being in trouble with him at the helm.

When the shot went in against Florida, it felt like we were watching Ray Ray or Khalid or Rip or Kemba all over again. That's the kind of emotions Shabazz produces now.

I don't know where this story ends. I still have my doubts that UConn can win it all with an inside game so suspect. And when you play so many close, gut-wrenching games, it usually catches up to you.

No matter what, though, Shabazz has cemented himself in UConn lore. He's the one who burst on the scene then faded into the background in his freshman year; the one who tried to captain his ship glory but ended up grounding her on jagged rocks in his sophomore season, and then, in his junior year, he's the one that decided to stay and lead a program back to respectability. He's the one who turned his weaknesses into strengths and had the ability to mature both as a player and a leader.

Maybe this season ends in perfect victory or bitter defeat. Who knows. What I do know is that it will end the career of Shabazz Napier, and I'll be very sad to see him go. I've enjoyed every minute of watching him play, even the moments I didn't enjoy so much.