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The Portland Trail Blazers were shorthanded when they squared off with the San Antonio Spurs Sunday night, as they were missing leading scorer and two-time All-Star Damian Lillard, who is currently struggling with a calf strain. With the 27-13 Spurs in town, it appeared that the Blazers would have a tough time competing without their top gun. But a great performance from an unlikely hero—point guard Shabazz Napier, who made a spot start for the injured Lillard—helped the 20-18 Blazers rally to their 21st win by a score of 111-110.
Most basketball fans likely remember Napier from his college days, but even NBA diehards probably haven't given him much thought since the 2014 NCAA tournament, where Napier was vital to the Connecticut Huskies' championship run. Since becoming a national champion and bringing home the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player award, Napier has bounced around the NBA, playing for three teams in four seasons. Through his first three years in the league, Napier struggled with efficiency and seemed unable to find a suitable role. This season, however, Napier has improved his play, and in a spot start for Lillard on Sunday, he showed that he can be a useful piece for a competitive team.
Against the Spurs, Napier tied for the team lead in assists (seven) and steals (two) while also chipping in five rebounds, which was tied for the second most among Portland players. He was third on the team in scoring with 15 points on an efficient 7-of-9 from the field. He registered a plus-two rating in the one-point victory, and the 6-foot-1 guard even added a block.
The strong performance is the latest in what has been a mini breakout campaign for the 26-year-old. He came into this season with a career average of 4.3 points per game on 37.3 percent shooting, but he is averaging 9.5 points on 48.7 percent from the field in 2017-18. Napier made four starts for Lillard earlier this season, averaging 19.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.0 steals over that span, and he looked like he hadn't missed a beat when once again called on to start Sunday.
In today's NBA, where players enter the league young (often as teenagers) and are thrown right into the fire, it seems unlikely that a player would finally figure things out at the age of 26, but that seems to be what Napier has done this season.
When watching his play, you'll see a guard who knows how to get into the paint, often drawing multiple defenders into the center of the court. The ball looks like it's on a string when Napier is weaving through opposing defenses, and his turnovers per 36 minutes are down from 2.8 over his first three seasons to just 2.0 during the current campaign. Once defenses have collapsed on Napier, he shows a strong ability to find the open man. He tends to make the smart play but also has some flash to his facilitation, as he displayed on a pretty behind-the-back assist against the Spurs.
If Napier can keep up his improved play, it could make life much easier on the Blazers, a team that leans heavily on star guards Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who are both in the top five among NBA players in minutes per game. Lillard has now dealt with hamstring and calf injuries over the past month, and he would likely find it a relief if the team could turn to a third guard to take some minutes off his plate. McCollum has been healthy this year, but the NBA season is long, and it's always smart to manage players' minutes to keep them fresh for a potential postseason run.
After being drafted 24th overall by the Miami Heat in 2014, Napier certainly struggled to find his footing in the NBA, but it seems that the former college star may have simply been a late bloomer as a pro. He won't garner any All-Star votes, but he finally looks like he belongs on an NBA court as a player who can make positive contributions to a winning team. If he finds himself elsewhere down the road in his NBA career, Napier might even have the chops to be a useful starter.
Maybe LeBron James was right about his favorite player in the 2014 draft after all.