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UConn in the Bubble: Trio of former Huskies off to a good restart

If their teams are to succeed, Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier, and Rudy Gay need to lead through continued strong play.

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

By the time you’ll be reading this, the NBA will have one week of ‘bubble life’ under its belt. With no football on the horizon and the prospect of fall sports looking precarious at best, all UConn fans have right now is to follow former Huskies in the pros. We’ve covered UConn in the WNBA, in professional soccer, and baseball, now let’s check in on the Huskies in the NBA.

Kemba Walker

Celtics fans probably have not slept well since reports that Kemba’s balky knee remains an issue. The good news is that in limited action, Kemba seems to have retained his usual burst, with no ill effects of his sore knee. Head coach Brad Stevens has Walker on a pretty tight minutes leash, intent on ramping them up carefully since the Celtics already have a relatively firm hold on the third seed. Over the last three games, Walker’s minutes have gone according to plan, increasing from 19, to 22, to 27.

During those same games, Kemba poured in 45 points in just 68 minutes, good for a per-36-minute rate of 23.9 points. He won’t play in the second leg of the back-to-back this week vs. Brooklyn, illustrating how lightly the organization is treading with Walker’s knee.

More important than the stats is the eye-test, which Walker has passed with flying colors. There’s no hesitancy in his cuts, he’s coming off screens effectively, and there’s the usual lift on his jumpshot. While the Celtics are certainly stacked, they possess a limited ceiling without their star point guard and will only go as far as Kemba can take them.

For UConn fans, it’s probably exciting simply to see Kemba reach the playoffs with a stacked team. Excluding those atrocious first-round-exit Hornets teams, we all know what happened the last time Walker entered postseason play with a capable supporting cast around him.

Shabazz Napier

Just to refresh your memory, Napier was bounced around during the trade deadline before the pandemic altered the season. He ended up landing with the Wizards, an intriguing source of playing-time given the backcourt injuries to John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Davis Bertans. Scott Brooks has dedicated this bubble restart to trotting out a younger core, so the 29-year old Napier may be looking at this stint as an extended tryout for 2020-2021.

Currently in a positional battle with Ish Smith, Napier got the bubble’s first start vs. Phoenix, chipping in 12 points in 27 minutes. He struggled in the next game vs. Brooklyn, logging just five points, three rebounds, and two assists in 25 minutes.

Unfortunately. that underwhelming performance got him demoted to the bench for game three, with head coach Scott Brooks swapping the hungry former Husky for Smith. Despite the reduced minutes he saw as a result, ‘Bazz poured in 16 points and four assists. Whether he’s starting or the first guard off the bench, Napier is locked into consistent playing time as the Wizards close out their remaining five games and vie for the 8th spot in the East.

Circle Thursday, August 13 on your calendars as Kemba and Shabazz will be going head-to-head when the Celtics take on the Wizards. Kemba’s team will probably get the better of ‘Bazz, but the latter can still hold up his two NCAA championship rings to Walker’s one.

Rudy Gay

It feels like Rudy Gay has been around forever. Gone are the days of high-flying dunks (well maybe not really) and elite athleticism. Lambasted by efficiency-heads and analytics nerds most of his career, the reliable yet oft-overlooked Gay has experienced a renaissance of sorts with a rebuilding-on-the-fly San Antonio Spurs. Now the oldest Spur (and sometimes center!) on the roster, Gay has averaged 18.3 points off the bench in three games, converting seven of his 15 three-point attempts while shooting 44.4% overall from the field.

He led San Antonio in scoring in their big win over Philadelphia and, along with DeMar DeRozan, has provided veteran leadership to a young Spurs core of 21-year-old Lonnie Walker, 23-year-old Dejounte Murray, 26-year-old Derrick White, and 24-year-old Jakob Poeltl.

The young Spurs currently sit in 10th in the West, but are only two games behind the eight-seed Memphis Grizzlies, Gay’s former team. Any team coached by the legendary Gregg Popovich cannot be counted out, and how sweet would it be to see the Spurs sneak in and challenge the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs? With Rudy ballin’ like it’s the early 2000s, there’s no telling what an upstart Spurs squad could do!