Heat’s Shabazz Napier showed promise, lacked consistency in rookie season
After then-Miami Heat player LeBron James watched senior point guard Shabazz Napier lead the Connecticut Huskies to the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball championship, he opined via social media that Napier was the top prospect for his position in the upcoming NBA draft.
Team president Pat Riley obliged by acquiring the speedy 22-year-old in a first-round draft day deal with the Charlotte Hornets, and James soon afterwards tweeted his approval by declaring Napier his favorite player in the draft. Though the two never played together once James bolted to Cleveland in free agency, the Heat had nevertheless addressed a pressing need for more depth at a position that included returning veterans Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
Napier had a strong training camp after underwhelming performances during Summer League in which he struggled with his shot, though he showed promise facilitating for others. In the preseason, he took advantage of extra playing time while starters rested, scoring in double-digits four straight games including a 25-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs.
His strongest month of the regular season was in November where he averaged 7.2 points on 46.2 percent shooting along with 2.2 assists, 2.7 rebounds in 23.4 minutes while playing in every game. Unfortunately, his numbers fell across the board by a significant margin the following month as he fell in and out of the lineup. Though his numbers rebounded slightly with each passing month, he never regained his early form and was sent to the D-League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in two separate stints for additional playing time.
"Shabazz was able to play basically two college seasons in his rookie season," said head coach Erik Spoelstra at the conclusion of the Heat’s season. "So what were the expectations from the outside? I don’t know because my expectations for him were just to learn our level of commitment, of work ethic, of player development, and to learn the NBA in one of the most challenging positions and he did that."
Napier’s role diminished further with the arrival of Goran Dragic in February and after sitting out 10 of his final 11 games, he was shut down for the season on April 1 after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. The rookie ended up playing in 51 games (with 10 starts) and averaged 5.1 points, 2.5 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 19.8 minutes.
WHAT HE DID RIGHT
Napier was at his best during preseason and at the start of the regular season when he was battling for minutes with Chalmers and Cole. He scored in double-figures for six straight games during a stretch in November, the longest such streak for a Heat rookie since Michael Beasley in 2009.
As the only pure point guard on the roster, Napier displayed excellent court vision as well as solid playmaking and passing skills as far back as Summer League. He showed good decision making in transition and knew when to pick his spots and be aggressive with own shot.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
For a young point guard learning the ropes at the highest level of competition after a trying rookie campaign that saw plenty of ups and downs, Napier needs to put in plenty of work on just about every facet of his game.
Some of that comes with time and repetition in order to acclimate to the NBA, like many young point guards, but Napier has the tools to become a legit backup to Dragic that can come in to a game and capably lead the second unit.
Should Dragic re-sign with the Heat, expect Napier to benefit from playing against him during a full training camp where the second-year guard can learn from Dragic about attacking and finishing at the rim.
With Chris Bosh in the hospital as he awaited his diagnosis of blood clots on his lungs and Dragic not yet ready to join his new teammates after he traded from the Phoenix Suns, Napier contributed a season-high 18 points (including 4-4 from 3-point territory in the first half), seven rebounds and six assists in 34 minutes off the bench to lead the Heat to a 111-87 victory against the New York Knicks on Feb. 20.
Napier’s pure point guard skills were groomed in his four years at UConn in which he won national titles in his freshman and senior years, but nothing could truly prepare him for the NBA game.
For the offseason, he will continue to rehab after his season-ending surgery and will then likely join his fellow young teammates Tyler Johnson, James Ennis and Hassan Whiteside for Summer League in July where he can continue to build his playmaking skills within the Heat system.
"I think he really improved with his work ethic from July to where it is right now," said Spoelstra. "I know he’s poised and ready to have a great offseason."