SAN ANTONIO – For much of this season, Shabazz Napier has been an afterthought on the Nets’ roster, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy. He sat out 12 games and played 10 minutes or less in eight others.
But since backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie underwent right thumb surgery, Napier has stepped in and revived visions of his days at UConn when he led the Huskies to the 2014 NCAA title. In the past four games, he has averaged 19.3 points and 4.5 assists while playing at least 25 minutes per game.
“It’s like the NFL when you lose your quarterback,” coach Kenny Atkinson said after the Nets practiced Friday in San Antonio before flying to Orlando to face the Magic Saturday night. “If you can go three deep, because it’s such an important position today, imagine if we don’t have him right now. I don’t know what you do. Signing him was a great job by Sean [Marks, Nets general manager].”
On Thursday against the Spurs, it was Napier who took the potential tying three-pointer at the buzzer, drawing contact but no foul call from the referees. Asked if he deserved the call, Napier laughed and said, “I got hit with the body, but that’s a tough call to call. They played it tremendously well.
“I looked at it multiple times. Even though it was like a split-second D’Angelo [Russell] was open in the corner, I was going up; so it’s hard to make those decisions in that split-second. They played that terrific.”
Since assuming a larger role, Napier has shown he still can be a dominant offensive force, as he was at UConn, when given the opportunity. “It is gratifying because, sometimes when you work your tail off and sometimes you’re not able to play, and when you do get a chance to play it doesn’t really show,” Napier said. “But for me it’s been showing a little bit, and I’m excited about it because I put in a ton of work. So, I’m definitely humble and happy that I’m able to show some of it.”
The beauty of having Napier to plug into the lineup is that he’s what Atkinson described as a “pesky defender,” and he’s efficient on offense because he gets to the foul line. The fact that Napier knows what it’s like to carry a team from his time at UConn gives him something extra to bank on in his current role.
“I’ve said this all the time, in college it was my time to do well, be the person of the team,” Napier said. “In the NBA it hasn’t happened for me yet. You have to embrace your role, whatever role God has given you, your coaches have given you, and deal with it.”
Actually, this might be Napier’s time to shine in the NBA.