Shabazz Napier gave Connecticut basketball fans something to look forward to Friday when he announced he has decided to forego the NBA Draft and return to Storrs for his senior season.
With the return of Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels confirmed, and the NCAA postseason ban lifted, things are about to return to normal at Gampel Pavilion. For the first time since Kemba Walker led the Huskies to the 2011 national championship, the focus can move back to basketball – and basketball only.
Napier is the key to UConn’s immediate future. He makes the difference between a good team and an exceptional team taking the floor next season.
That is the superficial impact of Napier’s decision. Dip below the surface and I think it is safe to predict that Napier will be much more than the leader he became as a junior. He will return for his senior season much wiser and more mature.
The reason for that is the self-examination he just put himself through since the UConn season ended on March 9. What a wonderful way to get to know yourself and truly understand your priorities.
Over the past two weeks there have been dozens of decisions announced by college basketball undergrads. Some are headed to the NBA. Others, like Napier, decided to return. Fans often chant “One More Year” to their favorite players and root for the decision that is best for their school and their team.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a selfish approach. What should matter – in every case – is that the player does what is right for him and his family. The options are there to examine and Napier took as much time as he could to explore all of his scenarios. The deadline for early entry into the draft is Sunday and Napier pushed all the way to the finish line.
And that’s fine. These decisions are not simple. In fact, you can see the impact on the face of every player making an announcement. It is excruciatingly difficult to make a decision at this level, one that will shape you forever, at the age of 19 or 20 or 21.
Louisville won the national championship and Russ Smith’s father said that was it; his son was turning pro. Coach Rick Pitino told Smith to give it a week. Pitino said he would support any decision, but he wanted Smith to think. Smith took the time and decided to return.
Freshman Ben McLemore of Kansas cried when he announced he was leaving for the NBA after just one season with the Jayhawks. McLemore will be one of the first two or three players taken in the draft. He comes from a difficult background with no money and often no food. His family’s life is about to change dramatically, so he had no choice. But McLemore was having fun as a college player. He wanted to stay. So when he said goodbye to his coach and his teammates, he cried.
Only Napier and his family know everything they had to consider. I don’t think the family financial situation can be described as despondently as that of the McLemore family. I don’t know and it’s none of my business.
But, from a pure basketball standpoint, I don’t think there’s any question Napier did exactly what he should have done. Napier made drastic improvement last season as a scorer, as a playmaker and as a leader. The kid is tough. He fights through injuries and his teammates respect the sacrifices he makes for the team.
Napier carried the torch last season for a team that had nothing to play for – except pride. He took Kevin Ollie’s philosophy to the floor and, in the process, he learned. Imagine what he can do with another year of instruction under a coach who logged 13 seasons in the NBA as a point guard.
Napier can walk away after his senior season with all the benefits of playing for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun and Ollie.
“I think Shabazz’s decision is great for him and great for the university,” Ollie said in a statement Friday. “I believe that first and foremost, it will give him a chance to earn his degree, which is something I know he’ll really cherish.
“At the same time, he’ll continue to hone his skills as a lead guard and contribute to us continuing the success of UConn basketball, but also he will keep cultivating the kind of atmosphere I want our student-athletes to be around. He was a big part of that with his leadership on and off the basketball court.”
There wasn’t a single mock draft or draft service that had Napier in the discussion as a first-round pick. It was a stretch even to think he would have been selected in the second round. He just recently got into two sneakers and out of the protective boot he has been wearing since the foot injury that sidelined him at the end of the season. It seemed questionable that he would have had successful workouts for NBA teams if he had entered the draft. And teams would have been concerned about those injuries that bothered him the last two seasons.
It seems that entering the draft would have been an invitation to the development league or playing overseas. Anyone who told him otherwise would have been misleading him. Maybe he had to consider those options for financial reasons. No one really knows, but he owed it to himself to explore the value of everything.
Napier has given himself one extra year to improve his game and improve his position in the 2014 Draft. Back in the old days, when there was less pressure to turn pro, that was the rule rather the exception.
All we do know is that he took his time and made his own decision. Good for Napier. And good for college basketball too, because too many players are leaving before they are ready. It hurts the college game. It hurts the pro game too.
Napier’s return to UConn is good for college basketball, just like the return of Doug McDermott to Creighton, Cory Jefferson to Baylor, and C.J. Fair to Syracuse. They are familiar faces we get to hold on to for one more year.
Napier has the chance to leave UConn high on the all-time scoring list and the all-time assist list. In three seasons, he has experienced every high and every low known to the college game. Now he has the opportunity to be the driving force behind a team that will be ranked in preseason polls and he can lead the Huskies, along with Boatright, Daniels, Omar Calhoun and a decent incoming class of recruits, back to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re excited about playing for a conference championship and in the NCAA tournament,” Napier said.
I was banking on Napier's return a couple of weeks ago when I made this prediction.
Better yet, after weeks of figuring out who he is and where he belongs, Shabazz Napier knows himself better than ever. How many of us truly ever gets an opportunity like that?
Congratulations, Shabazz. You did the right thing. You did it for all the right reasons. Now open the doors to Husky Nation and let everyone share the ride with you.