The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season was a year defined by high ambitions and unmet expectations. The team saw a regression to the norm after shocking the league just a year prior, but there is plenty of talent on the roster that can help it improve.
Ahead of 2017-18, Oregon Sports News’ Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be breaking down the strengths, weaknesses and recent showings from each and every Trail Blazers player. Today, we take a look at a player who went from cult hero status in college to LeBron James’ favorite prospect entering the draft. Now with the Blazers, he’s a bottom-of-the-bench guard, but if the minutes ever appear, he’s primed to take advantage of the opportunity.
The days of Shabazz Napier being a household name are in the past. His time at UCONN earned him fans at every corner of the country, and the hype failed to die down when the greatest player of our current generation publically announced he was his “favorite player in the draft” in 2014.
Unfortunately for Napier, James chose to leave South Beach for Cleveland just weeks after the Miami Heat drafted the Huskies guard, meaning there was no need for Pat Riley to keep the youngster around after an underwhelming rookie season.
Fast forward to last year—Napier’s first in Rip City—and you get another underwhelming campaign on the surface. As evidenced by the numbers above, his impact was rarely felt and his opportunities to shine were few and far between.
The good news is that it wasn’t all a bummer. The connecticut product saw two starts in the year’s final games and managed to average 28.5 points per contest on 50 percent shooting from the field and 53.8 percent from deep.
“I think I did what I had to do,” he said in his exit interview, per The Oregonian’s Sean Meagher. “I did what I could do, understanding that my role wasn’t to come in and play a lot of minutes knowing that we had two elite guards and (Evan Turner) as well.
“Whenever my number was called I always felt like I was ready.”
If Napier can continue providing microwave offense during his infrequent opportunities, he should be able to carve out a more consistent role on a team that seems to always be seeking bench scoring.
After all, the Blazers were just 25th in points off the pine last season, per HoopsStats.com.
What He Brings To The Table
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now.
Shabazz has one of the coolest names in the NBA. I mean…it’s no Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje or Detlef Schrempf, but Mr. Napier should go down in Trail Blazers history as having one of the sweetest names the franchise has ever seen.
Luckily for him, that’s just the start when it comes to why Portland fans should be excited to see him on the roster.
Although his skill set hasn’t yet translated to regular on-court success, it’s more diverse than he gets credit for. He’s a reliable shooter from long range and he can create scoring opportunities with methodical play in the half court.
He’s even been humbled a bit since joining the Association, becoming a better distributor and playmaker for others. He was hardly known as a distributor in college, but he averaged the fourth-most assists per 36 minutes on the Blazers last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Defensively, Napier’s size does him no favors. He struggles at times staying in front of opposing guards, but his 6’1”, 175-pound frame also makes negotiating screens a tough task.
Luckily for the pint-sized point guard (at least by today’s comparison), his offensive production, when given a chance, outweighed his defensive ineptitude.
Last season, Napier’s Offensive Box Plus/Minus was sixth on the roster despite him being 12th in minutes played. His Defensive Box/Plus Minus was a less-impressive 11th, but his advanced offensive skills helped him (and should continue helping him) earn the trust of Terry Stotts.
What To Expect in 2017-18
Earning minutes is going to be difficult in Portland. Napier is technically the team’s backup point guard, but getting run behind one of the league’s best players is never an easy task.
Combine that with the fact that Stotts can, has and will continue to deploy CJ McCollum and Evan Turner as offensive orchestrators, and you have a situation that’s less than ideal for a guy who’s simply seeking minutes.
But here’s the good news for Napier. This is going to be the first time in his career (he’s entering his fourth season) where he will play for the same team two years in a row. “I think I’ve learned a lot,” he said at the end of last season, per Meagher. “More than I learned my past two years.”
With familiarity and comfortability now on his side, the hope is that he can find a home within the rotation. He’s not going to miraculously become a starter, but regular run as a tertiary floor general could do him a lot of good.
Odds are, the Blazers choose not to feature him in the rotation very often. If they do, it’s likely out of necessity via an injury to one or more of the three primary ball-handlers ahead of him.
But if (and occasionally when) he sees the floor, he has a chance to continue making a name for himself. Not as a cult hero, and certainly not as LeBron’s favorite phenom, but as a reliable NBA player who can be trusted to create and score when his number is called.
Check out the rest of our series down below: