Perhaps it was the added motivation of playing the team that traded him away last off-season; perhaps he was just tired of losing. Whatever the case, Trail Blazers point guard Shabazz Napier stepped up in more ways than one in the team’s win over the Orlando Magic—their first game since the All-Star break.
Just as it appeared the Trail Blazers would lose another disappointing contest against the team with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference (behind only the dismal Brooklyn Nets), and shortly after Elfrid Payton drove unabated to the rim for the third consecutive possession, a furious Terry Stotts called a timeout, with the Magic lead at double-digits.
However, it wasn’t Stotts that caught the team’s attention in the ensuing huddle. It was Napier, the little-used point guard, that implored his team to give a better effort.
After the game, Napier spoke with The Oregonian’s Mike Richman,
"I told the team that offensively we have great players so we're going to be able to score," Napier said. "It's just defensively that we have to be consistent. No matter what's going on, effort has to never be something that coach talks about."
Napier, who had played six minutes in the first half due to Damian Lillard’s early foul trouble, followed the pep talk with his best performance in a Trail Blazer uniform to date. He finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 26 minutes off the bench. After entering the game at the 7:44 mark of the third quarter, he never checked back out, playing the remainder of the third and the entire fourth quarter.
He also played great defense, holding Orlando point guards Payton and D.J. Augustin to six points combined on 2-7 shooting when guarding them in the second half.
Lillard was quick to credit the 25-year-old with the team’s second half turnaround, saying that he “challenged” the team. Napier is no stranger to leading teams, having anchored the seventh seeded UConn Huskies to the 2014 National Championship, and being named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player that season.
Napier’s breakout performance could lead to an increase in minutes. The Trail Blazers are seemingly in a rebuild mode at this point, while still fighting for a playoff spot, so it is an opportune time for him to prove to the organization what he can do.
Edit (8:16 p.m. PT): A previous version of this article contained a section in which Napier was misquoted and has since been corrected