Napier finally following Walker's lead

PHILADELPHIA -- It's just a hat, a goofy, lime green, knit concoction made so that when the wearer pulls it down over his face, he looks like an alien.

Shabazz Napier picked it up at a Lids in Philadelphia while he and his Connecticut teammates were killing time before a game against Temple.

He wanted one of the freshmen to wear it but he refused, so Napier did the honors, propping it on his head for a midafternoon shootaround. He wasn't looking to make a statement or offer up some deep meaning with the purchase. It was just a hat.

"I thought it would be fun," Napier said.

Ah, but there it is.

Unintentional or not, Napier's silly shopping spree does, if you want to extrapolate, have a subtle message.

The old Shabazz Napier wouldn't buy that hat, and frankly wouldn't care about giving his teammates a laugh or doing anything much in the way of fun. The old Shabazz Napier was too consumed with the act of winning, and worse, with the fear of losing, so wrapped up in the results of a basketball game that he could never bother to enjoy the sport.

The new Shabazz Napier not only buys silly hats, he wears them with a goofy grin.

"He's letting people in, he's not as guarded and that's great to see," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "He has a special gift and I think leaders give away their gift. Before, he kept it inside. Now he's sharing it and he's having fun, enjoying the moment. That's what it's about -- the journey, not the goal. He's letting go of the outcomes and just playing the game."

The beautiful irony, of course, is that by concentrating on the joy of the process rather than the agony of the results, Napier is enjoying the sweet taste of both. The senior leads the Huskies in scoring (17.8 points per game), rebounds (6.0), assists (5.3), steals (1.9) and minutes (37.4), and his team, back from the dead of APR punishment, is 23-6 and 11-5 in the American Athletic Conference.

On Wednesday night, when UConn faces Rutgers in its final home game, Napier will be feted as part of the senior night activities. He will be celebrated as a player who has become the face of the program and the heart and soul of his team.

UConn's new Kemba Walker, if you will.  

That tag also offers its fair share of twisted irony, because earlier in his career, Walker was both the milestone and the roadblock for Napier.

In 2011, Walker put together one of the most magical March runs in recent memory, practically willing UConn to a national championship. Napier was a freshman on that team. He was Walker's de facto kid brother, the one Walker would make hold his book bag or send to the store to buy a few things -- "I'd keep the change, whatever it was," Napier said with a grin.

But the understanding was that Napier was more than a sidekick. He was Walker's understudy, and in a year's time, when Walker moved on to the NBA, Napier would slide right in to fill the void.

It was a crazy notion, really. Napier, a Charlestown, Mass., kid who didn't turn recruiting heads until the end of his high school career, would be only a sophomore, but he would get next, even if he wasn't ready for it.

"He wasn't Kemba, so that really wasn't fair," said former UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "Kemba was the benchmark, but Shabazz couldn't be Kemba."

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