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UConn in the Bubble: Kemba’s best supporting cast since 2011?

Plus a look at how Shabazz Napier and Rudy Gay closed out their time in Orlando.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Almost two weeks ago, we profiled a trio of former Huskies playing in the NBA bubble. With the playoffs now underway, let’s check back in on that triumvirate to see whose time in the bubble has burst and who looks primed to make a deep playoff run circa 2011.

Shabazz Napier

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: the Washington Wizards are AWFUL. They managed one win out of eight games, a six-point victory on the last day against the second-string Celtics team resting its starters. That’s what happens when your two star players are injured.

For Napier, it was a good start to Bubble Life, logging 25+ minutes in his first three games as he auditioned for a new contract in hopes of avoiding a Kevin Ollie-esque string of one-year deals. However, an ankle injury limited his exposure in the final five games, while Ish Smith and Troy Brown Jr. both seemingly jumped him on the depth chart.

Despite what’s (likely) a disappointing end to his Wizards tenure, Napier averaged career-high marks in points (10.3), assists (4.7), rebounds (2.8), three-pointers (1.4), steals (1.2), and minutes (24.0) in 56 appearances with Minnesota and Washington in 2019-20. Steady backup point guards are a sought-after commodity in the NBA for contenders and re-building teams alike, especially ones with playoff experience.

Who knows, maybe Danny Ainge can bring Shabazz in and go full 2011 next year with the Celtics? Crazier things have happened.

Rudy Gay

As noted in this Spurs bubble postpordem, Gay looked like he was on the back nine of his career during the 2019-2020 regular season. He got his sea legs toward the end, however, and kept that momentum going in the bubble where he logged a franchise-setting thirteen straight games scoring double-digits while coming off the bench. Yes that’s Husky alum Rudy Gay holding such an illustrious Spurs record, not future Hall of Famer Manu Ginoboli.

In seven games at the NBA bubble, Gay averaged an ultra-efficient 17.9 points per game on 46.8% from the field, 45.7% 3-point shooting, and 5.7 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game. The Spurs couldn’t sneak into the loaded Western Conference top eight, missing the playoffs for the first time in 23 years.

As long as Greg Popovich is coaching and R.C. Buford is the general manager, you can’t count out the Spurs for long. It seems Gay is likely to stick around for one more year, but with a salary cap hit of $14.5 million in 2020-21, the swingman could be a trade-chip should the Spurs fully commit to the youth movement. So either he carves out a bigger role elsewhere, or becomes the steadying veteran on the bench for an up-and-coming San Antonio team. A win-win.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Kemba Walker

Then there’s Kemba Walker, the last Husky standing in the 2019-2020 season. Kemba’s Celtics secured the third seed in the Easter Conference, blowing the doors off the defending champion Toronto Raptors along the way. Kemba’s leash was slowly loosened by President Stevens in the final four bubble games, even after Boston locked up its seeding.

The numbers don’t pop out — 14.2 points in 25.2 minutes in six games, shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three — but they’re not supposed to. The bubble was supposed to ramp up Kemba’s minutes so he can play restriction free in the playoffs.And so far, the plan has worked perfectly.

In Boston’s two wins, Kemba has averaged an uber-efficient 20 points per game on 47% shooting in just 30.5 minutes. Last night’s blowout gave Boston a chance to rest its star point guard, limiting him to just 25 minutes.

The size of the Philadelphia 76ers on paper, even without all-star Ben Simmons, posed a formidable first-round threat to Boston’s title hopes. But so far, Kemba and company have taken care of business, building a 2-0 series lead thanks to the continued superstar ascent of Jayson Tatum.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Tatum’s emergence has offset Gordon Hayward’s game one ankle injury, while freeing up floor space for Walker’s penetration. With defenses starting to concoct game plans to get the ball out of Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s hands, Kemba seeing less and less double teams, and there are very few NBA defenders that can stay in front of him one-one-one.

That’s left Walker free to play the two-man pick-and-roll game with Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams III. All three Boston bigs are playing the Alex Oriakhi role from 2011; capable screen-setters that can give Kemba the separation he needs to do damage, whether it be pulling up from mid-range, or kicking out to the Jay’s as the defense collapses.

Kemba was never brought in to the Celtics be the superstar; he was brought in to do exactly what he’s done in the NBA for nine seasons, except this time with a supporting class around him that lightens his load.

Boston general manager Danny Ainge gambled that instead of hindering the development of star wings Tatum and Brown, Kemba would complement them. And in turn, it would give Kemba something he always lacked in the NBA; a capable supporting cast he could lead deep into the playoffs.

You could argue Kemba hasn’t played on a playoff team with this much talent since the magical 2011 run (people forget that six Huskies from that roster earned professional contracts, seven if you include Tyler Olander’s baseball pivot).

And that’s to say nothing of his leadership and effervesce. The illustrious Doris Burke, on Monday’s ESPN broadcast, told a delightful anecdote about Kemba’s Husky days with Jim Calhoun, and how the notoriously cantankerous UConn coach was unable to stay mad whenever Kemba came up to his office. I’m paraphrasing, but I think Calhoun’s words were “He’s flash that smile and I could never stay mad at him.”

It’s been a terrible year for sports on the whole, but at least UConn fans can take solace in one of their prodigal sons finally getting back to where he belongs.