This summer the Blazers made moves aimed at deepening and reinforcing a 2015-16 squad that surprised the entire NBA with a 44-38 record and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. While most of the discussion has surrounded Evan Turner’s exorbitant contract and Festus Ezeli’s knees, one tertiary question still remains – what do we make of Shabazz Napier?
Everyone knows about LeBron James’ glowing endorsement of the 6-foot-1 point guard, but little else. Napier was taken by the Charlotte Hornets at No. 24 and promptly traded to the Heat – at James’ demand – in 2014 after he won two NCAA National Championships with the UConn Huskies.
But as if in some unfortunate twist of fate, LeBron’s decision to return home to Ohio has coincided with the slow, under-the-radar fall from hype that is now Napier’s career. Just 12 months after draft night, Napier finished his first NBA season with averages of 19.8 minutes (10 starts) 5.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists before being sent 240 miles north to Orlando for a conditional second-round pick.
Unfortunately, his new pinstriped uniform didn’t deliver a magic change in fortunes and his minutes dropped to 10.9 per game (no starts) with 3.7 points, 1.8 assists and one rebound. He did, however, show the odd glimpse of his full talent, knocking down 22 points (including five 3-pointers) against the Lakers earlier in the season.
He was consequently traded to the Blazers on July 7 this year in exchange for cash considerations.
So, no doubt, Portland fans are asking themselves: why bother?
The decision to bring Napier on board may not have been an impulse call. The Blazers reportedly inquired about him at last season’s trade deadline, according to Marc Spears. However, Portland chose to deal with Napier’s former team, Miami, taking on Brian Roberts instead.
Keep an eye on Orlando guard Shabazz Napier this final trade deadline hour as Portland and Chicago have interest, a source said.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) February 18, 2016
Perhaps Portland GM Neil Olshey saw Napier as another "Maurice Harkless" opportunity, turning an out-of-rotation Magic player with Puerto Rican heritage into an important and crucial contributor.
As for Portland’s backcourt rotation – it’s crowded. Lillard and McCollum will likely monopolize 70 of the 96 minutes available. Of the remaining 26 minutes, Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner (earning a combined $36 million this season) will spend time at both the shooting guard and small forward positions.
This leaves Napier filling what one could comfortably assume to be the Tim Frazier/Roberts role of last year – first on the floor during junk time with a very occasional minute or two earlier on.
So what does Napier bring to the team that Frazier and Roberts didn't?
First, he has youth on his side at 25 – five years younger than Roberts and with two years to play on his rookie contract, he's cheap.
He can shoot at a better rate than Frazier, over whom he also has height and defensive advantages. Napier is considerably more efficient from 3 than Frazier, per 36. He also has a better free-throw percentage as seen below:
To delve a bit further, we should compare Napier’s 2015-16 figures with Frazier’s 2014-15 numbers as the now Pelican rapidly improved his shooting after arriving in the Pacific Northwest. Don't forget Al-Farouq Aminu experienced the same percentage hike in a Blazers uniform:
So if Terry Stotts and his staff really are the 3-point whisperers we believe them to be, you can only assume that Napier’s numbers are likely to rise as well.
Clearly, Frazier records higher assists, but with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Turner, Mason Plumlee and Aminu, the Blazers are set for facilitators.
While Blazer fans shouldn’t expect Napier to crack real rotation minutes this year, the real question is whether he will be able to handle the heat on the floor during crunch situations in the event of an injury or rest for the Blazers' stars.
During the past four years, Olshey's eye for talent has regularly been doubted at first glance, but more often than not he has been vindicated once players step onto the court ... so I'm willing to give both he and Napier the benefit of the doubt.
Yes, Portland is Napier’s third stop in as many years. But like others before him, the change of scenery could be just what he needs, learning under the tutelage of two of the most exciting young guards in the league.
...just don't let your expectations get too high.