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Shabazz Napier’s Improved Play Has Caught the Eye of Lillard, Stotts

The fourth-year guard is finally starting to carve out a role in a guard-heavy Blazers rotation.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Shabazz Napier’s NBA journey began with a thud. The former University of Connecticut star bounced from the Heat to the Magic in his first two seasons, before being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers. It wasn’t an opportunity to start, given Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the roster. It wasn’t even an opportunity for heavy playing time, with Evan Turner arriving as the big-money free agent destined for much of the backup playmaker minutes.

But he would receive chances to shine. And in his second season in Portland, Napier is taking advantage of them, impressing not only Blazer fans, but also the players and coaches. The Blazers’ Casey Holdahl writes:

“I kind of live by the saying ‘Let the game tell you what to do,’” said Napier. “Some days it tells me to become more of an offensive threat and other days it tells me to pick up on defense. It just depends on the day.”

Napier “worked [his] tail off” this offseason, attempting to raise his game to the next level. Lillard has noticed the improved play already:

“He’s definitely impacted the game every time he’s got out there,” said Lillard of Napier. “We can count on him getting in the game. I think Coach has seen that he can depend on him, I think he has a lot of faith and trust in him, what he does out there.

It seems Lillard is right in guessing his coach’s feelings on the guard. Head coach Terry Stotts told NBC Sports’ Jason Quick that Napier has earned a more active role:

“He’s had three good games in a row,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Getting him on the court, in various capacities, is something that will probably continue.’’

In nine games this season, Napier is averaging a career-high 5.4 points, plus 1.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists in just 11.2 minutes. Other career-highs include his free throw percentage (80 percent), three-point percentage (55.6 percent) and field goal percentage (60 percent).

With his strong play, those limited minutes are starting to trend upward. The “three good games in a row” Stotts referenced have also been some of the most busy for Napier. He’s played no less than 14 minutes in all three, peaking with around 20 minutes against the Grizzlies.

For Napier, it’s just about always coming in ready to contribute, and remembering something his mom once said to him. As he told Quick:

“My mother instilled this quote in me,’’ Napier said. “She said, ‘The easiest thing you can do in life is quit.’ That has stayed with me since I was young. I never wanted to be a quitter. I always wanted to win.’’

Shabazz will have another chance to shine Wednesday night, when the Blazers host the Magic at 7:00 pm.