Shabazz Napier wasn’t always the easiest kid to root for. He was rough around the edges and could let his competitive streak get the best of him on occasion. Early on, he was an underachiever in the classroom. It would be easy to watch him and see him as a selfish player at times. You could be excused if you wondered if he wasn’t going to be one more example of a city legend somewhere who flamed out when it came to college.
If you knew him back in those days, you knew none of that was who he really is. And if you have followed him over the years, you know that none of that has been true for quite a while now. He wakes up on Tuesday morning with an incredible college legacy that includes two national championships, and one that is the product of tremendous growth into the player and person he always had the potential to become. That he is a two-time champion does not change him from what he was into something else; rather, it is his evolution into the person he is that changed him into a champion.
Napier was always highly-regarded on the court. He was on the radar early on, aided by being the point guard at Boston City League power Charlestown High School, who less than two months ago retired his number. Growing up in Roxbury, he had an edge to him, one that helps him on the court but didn’t always endear him to others. He could be a bit on the mercurial side.
His evolution started when he went to Lawrence Academy in Groton, but it wasn’t smooth. A bright young man, he didn’t put in the effort necessary in the classroom at Charlestown, and as a result had to re-classify back two years when he changed schools. At first, he wasn’t the consummate floor leader who made others better; rather, he was an undersized volume shooter. He could put up the points, but didn’t get on high-major radars right away.
While he got his act together in the classroom, he also got it together on the court – eventually. After his first year in Groton, he started using his quickness to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. He stopped settling for three-pointers not in the flow of the offense and became the consummate floor leader. He went to the Reebok Breakout Camp and was arguably the best point guard there. That continued throughout July, on into the next season.
You saw a whole new Shabazz Napier when open gym workouts commenced that September, with plenty of college coaches in the gym. Not only that, but you saw him changing as a person. You saw a more charismatic young man and one who was turning into a leader. You came to see that if you met him once, he’ll remember you forever and always want to talk. He was making teammates better, and then Lawrence Academy went undefeated in his junior year.
By the time he moved up a year to be one year behind his original high school class instead of two, and headed to Connecticut, he was ready for what was ahead. Ready to contribute in college. Ready to make it academically and socially in college. Ready to show that he could reach his potential.
He could have figured college would be easy. His freshman year, Kemba Walker led the team on a magical run in March that ended with a national championship. Napier made his mark primarily as a defender, and he was not a bit player, but make no mistake, this was Kemba’s team. Napier looked up to Kemba and thinks the world of him.
The following two years were a lot tougher, but also showed you what Napier had become. He was arguably the face of the team right away. While Andre Drummond was more talented in Napier’s second season, he was also more laid back. Napier was the one who would gladly talk to the media, even after losses, and would shoot you straight about his team. He would take responsibility, being the point guard, but more than that, talking to him revealed someone who had grown up. You knew you were talking to a student of the game. You knew you were talking to the proverbial coach on the floor. You knew you were talking to someone who knew what it takes to win.
You also knew you were talking to someone who was having a hard time adjusting to that at first. You knew you were witnessing more growing pains.
That made last year, when the Huskies were ineligible for postseason tournaments and were decimated by graduation and transfers because of that, no accident. Napier led the Huskies to a season that would have otherwise resulted in an NCAA Tournament bid under first-year coach Kevin Ollie. He made big plays and carried himself like the leader of this team. He had decided that it was his team, and he was going to make them a good team.
And with all of that, the national championship the Huskies took home with their 60-54 win over Kentucky on Monday was no accident, either, unexpected though it was. This team didn’t exactly have national championship-caliber talent and experience. But they had their leader in Napier, and he made big play after big play and was the reason this team won. He was the engine that made them go, offensively, defensively and with intangibles.
He was everything he wasn’t a few years earlier. But he was also everything that he was always capable of being. The journey to that point has been impressive to watch happen.
The Huskies won this national championship with many contributions. A lot of them go back to Napier, and a big assist goes to Kevin Ollie, who clearly has had a major impact on him. Ollie has been consistent in his message about Napier: he has a gift with this game and has to give away his gift. Ryan Boatright has athletic gifts that Napier has helped harness by leading him. DeAndre Daniels’ emergence in the NCAA Tournament comes in part from Napier getting him to be more confident in his ability.
Shabazz Napier has given away his gift, and in return has a legacy that won’t be forgotten. Few players win two national championships, especially since nowadays so many of the best players don’t hang around long enough to have two chances. He brought them from winning a national title and having to go through tough follow-up seasons to become the unexpected champions once more. It’s not exactly going from last place to being champions like his hometown Boston Red Sox did, but he was born and raised Boston Strong in Roxbury and evolved into a champion, a good young man and will soon be a college graduate as well. Those are all reasons why he had a lot of people in his hometown rooting for him on Monday night and celebrating the result.