In 2011, the college basketball world was taken by storm when Kemba Walker decided to make it his league for the entirety of the Big East and NCAA tournaments. In one of the most memorable performances in the last ten years, Walker was a one man wrecking crew, leading the Connecticut Huskies to an NCAA championship. For most fans, Walker’s performance is all that was memorable about the Huskies’ tournament run. That shouldn’t be the case though.
Backing up Walker over that entire season was a young freshman point guard out of New England Prep. Quick on his feet and great at playing the passing lanes, Shabazz Napier had just completed a great rookie season, showing that he would have the ability to take over for Walker once the latter went on to the NBA.
During his sophomore season, the team struggled to keep its position as the best in the nation but Napier showed personal improvement. He nearly doubled his scoring output and took on a much bigger role as a leader on the team. That season, Napier displayed his ability to do a little bit of everything when he recorded the ninth triple double in Huskies history.
Unfortunately for Napier and his teammates, UCONN was also caught by the NCAA for having some of their players fail to meet academic standards. Because of this, they were suspended from tournament play the following year, causing recruits to avoid committing to UCONN and leading to veteran Alex Oriahki’s transfer to Misouri.
In a season that was looked at as a lost cause, Napier exploded. He averaged 17 points per game, showed great poise in controlling the team’s offense and also rebounded extremely efficiently as a point guard. Paired with Ryan Boatright, the duo was one of the best guard tandem in the nation, dropping a combined 33 points per game on the opposition. While the team may not have been able to take part in the NCAA tournament, Napier had done enough to show that he had the potential to be an NBA player and the thoughts of going pro were dangled at him by both agents and NBA teams alike.
Ultimately, Napier chose to finish what he started and come back to UCONN for his senior season. Since Boatright will also be back this season, the combo is expected to be even deadlier than before and should be the catalyst for a very exciting and versatile Huskies offense.
While Napier has been selected for almost all pre-season awards and nominations, he has hardly gotten any press. On the court, he is quick and fun to watch but off the court, he has always been a fairly quiet and low key guy. What a lot of fans don’t realize is how far Napier has come from being the young man who was backing up Kemba Walker. At this point in time, he is unquestionably the best player on UCONN’s roster and has a very legitimate chance at winning the National Player of the Year Award.
Now in the new American Athletic Conference, UCONN’s only tough opponent this season will be the Louisville Cardinals. At the worst, the Huskies should finish second and if they have good performances against the Cardinals, they could take the top spot. Napier will have his pick of the litter when it comes to putting up statistics against the teams they will be playing against and he will have the green light to do what he wishes from his coaches. Of all the possible national player of the year candidates, Napier probably has the biggest gap in talent when it comes to his own teammates which means that he can control his own faith.
The thing is, Napier is a smart, unselfish player who has tasted team success. He knows that individual awards won’t matter as much as winning it all and he won’t go out every game looking to cement his status as the player of the year. All this writer hopes is that when it comes to voting time, if Napier has done his part to get his name in consideration, that the voters will reward both his efforts and commitment to a UCONN program that seemed shaky only a season ago.
When it all comes down to it, Napier will be a Huskies great whether he wins any player of the year awards or not. The students and fans of the school know how much he means to the program and come senior day, they will show their appreciation in bunches.