While preseason basketball usually doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, it is an opportunity for those without a secure foothold on minutes to make a case for more playing time. Enter Shabazz Napier. After the Heat drafted him at the behest of LeBron James, Napier found himself floundering once The King left Miami. Then Napier was shipped off to where NBA players go to die - the Orlando Magic. There, with a team in even more turmoil than the post-Lebron Heat, Napier put up worse numbers across the board than he had in Miami the year before.
Cut to Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey on what seems like his yearly run through the NBA’s version of the bargain bin, this time snatching up Napier from the Magic for cash considerations. (If Napier turns into anything, Olshey needs to make a yearly pilgrimage to Orlando to pilfer whatever it is the Blazers need.)
In five preseason appearances so far with Portland, Napier has put up 10.6 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting from the floor on 50 percent shooting from three in over 17 minutes a night. On the surface, if you’re getting half that production from your third-string point guard, you’re probably ecstatic.
Has Napier Done Enough?
Napier has done two things really well this preseason: Attacking off the dribble, and getting his own shot. When factored into the Blazers scheme, this is an incredibly useful skill set.
Having someone who can knife through the defense and get a bucket is a skill that will always be valued in the NBA.
As opposed to former Blazers third-stringer Tim Frazier, Napier is a threat from everywhere on the floor. He can knock it down from distance, and he can finish at the cup in traffic. His lightning speed and tight handles allow him to wiggle through traffic and create enough space to get his jumper off or get the extra step and space to finish inside.
Napier has looked great with the ball in his hands and time on the clock, and while the preseason isn’t necessarily indicative of future success or failure a few things have popped up. While he may be able to create his own shot at will against lesser NBA talent, can he do it against rotation players? That’s still an open question. Another thing to consider: Can Napier run a team?
While there have been times where Napier has worked the pick-and-roll quite well with Noah Vonleh, that’s about the only real playmaking we’ve seen from the young man. In 17+ minutes, Napier is averaging less than an assist per game. This could be due to coach Terry Stotts directing Napier to attack and create for himself, or it could just be Napier’s natural leaning. But those aren’t exactly the assist totals you’d expect to see from a point guard getting that kind of minutes.
On the bright side, Napier has shown a high-level shot IQ. He’s taking and making shots he’s comfortable with, in the flow of the offense and knocking them down regularly. He’s shown the ability to break down his defender and get to spots on the floor where he can succeed. Finally, and the least indicative of anything, Napier has shown point-guardy tendencies in feeding the hot hand when it appears (see: Vonleh, Noah and Layman, Jake).
Pairing Napier with another primary ball handler like Evan Turner in the second unit could make sense. Ideally, Portland still has CJ McCollum as the primary scorer/playmaker with the reserves. However, if you insert Napier into the lineup and bump McCollum back to shooting guard with Turner at small forward, you now have three players who can create their own shots without relying on the McLillard combo.
What Kind of Role Does He Have?
So what does a role in the rotation look like for Napier? Considering Damian Lillard has been in the NBA’s top-10 in minutes played every year he’s been in the league (save last year, due to injury), spelling Lillard a few minutes probably isn’t the worst idea on the planet. When Tim Frazier was with the Trail Blazers, he played just shy of 8 minutes per game and didn’t really register anything meaningful in the stat line.
Essentially Frazier gave Portland some insurance against an injury in the backcourt and relieved Lillard in garbage time or if he needed a quick breather. Can Napier be more than that? Does Portland need more than that from him, particularly this season?
It’s way too early to heap any kind of expectations on Napier as far as projections go. However, effective spot-duty should be the bare minimum expectation at this point. On top of his offensive contributions, Napier has been lauded by both McCollum and Lillard for his defensive intensity in practice and on the floor during preseason games.
Of the three guards in Portland’s point guard rotation, it’s not a stretch by any means to say Napier has the best lateral quickness of the group. Pair that with a high level of intensity, and a dogged willingness to go after opposing guards on the defensive end and it becomes easy to see those traits and attributes rubbing off on not only the other guards but the team as a whole.
In matchup-based scenarios, Stotts could insert Napier mid-game to hound opposing point guards and allow either/both Lillard and McCollum to work off-ball. This keeps those same opposing guards from “taking a breather” by switching off Lillard or McCollum on the defensive end. While that may not seem like a huge effect, the little things like this can pay dividends over the course of 82 games.
So, Napier can cover the spot minutes role. He can be inserted as a defensive hound in specific situations, and he can do the most Blazer of things…knock down the 3-pointer. That package of skills - along with the needs of the Trail Blazers - certainly bodes well for Napier’s shot at legitimate playing time this season.
However, getting anything outside of 8-10 minutes per game with the way this roster is currently constructed certainly looks difficult. With that in mind though, Blazer fans should feel relatively comfortable with the way their depth chart is shaking out at the point guard position.