Napier finally following Walker's lead

Walker is a natural-born smiler, a gregarious personality who grins his way through the toughest of times. Napier, by nature, is more of an introvert, a tough, hardscrabble kid whom Calhoun, a tough, hardscrabble Bostonian himself, recognized.

Napier's mother, Carmen Velasquez, struggled to raise her three kids alone, and Napier, a late basketball bloomer, heard more about what he wouldn't amount to than what he could. The combination made him more guarded and less trusting, a kid who used the disadvantages and disregard to foster a me-against-the-world attitude.

Napier defined himself by results, by wins instead of losses and assists instead of turnovers. He became more than a person who hated to lose; he became a person who quite simply couldn't handle it.

Losing doesn't happen much in high school, of course, so kids naturally flocked to Napier, his talent and attitude mistaken for leadership. But in his first year in college, he had Walker, who made it all look so easy.

"We were spoiled," Napier said. "We were all spoiled by Kemba."

Reality came with a crash in Napier's sophomore season. The Huskies struggled to a sub-.500 Big East record and were quickly bounced from the NCAA tournament. A January-February meltdown in which UConn lost seven of nine games included a dismal 15-point thumping at the hands of Marquette that ended with Napier publicly questioning his teammates' heart.

It wasn't all Napier's fault -- Calhoun missed nine games with injury and illness -- but it felt like it to him.

"Alex Oriakhi and I were captains and he has this great presence," Napier said. "He enjoys life and in certain situations, we were losing and he was joking around. I interpreted it so wrong and I would get so mad. I isolated myself. I didn't know how to handle losing, so I'd go to my room and tell guys to leave me alone."

The burden of expectation and the expectation of leadership has suffocated its share of players. Plenty never come back.

Napier did.

There wasn't an "a-ha moment" or even a hard sitdown with Calhoun. There was a slow and steady realization from Napier that he could be better and do more.

He turned to the same sort of self-reflection he uses to break down his game to break down his leadership skills and figured out pretty quickly what the trouble was.

"I wasn't talking to my teammates the right way," Napier said. "I wasn't doing the things that got me to campus. I wasn't having fun."

So Napier made a concerted effort to change, to let people in rather than locking them out. 

He is never going to be Walker. He leads more with a focused grimace than a sly grin, but he is every bit as effective.

"They're different personalities, but when it's time to go, time to stand up and say, 'I'm present, Coach,' they're always there, standing at the front," Ollie said. "I love that. [Napier] is not afraid of the moment. And that's what Kemba had."

The moments have come frequently for Napier this season -- from a buzzer-beating jumper to beat Florida back in December to a 34-point, 5-rebound, 4-assist, 4-steal night to top Memphis in February.

The comparisons to Walker come just as fast and furious.

Now, though, they aren't based merely on expectation and opportunity. Napier has earned them. He is playing well. His team is winning. And he's enjoying the ride.

"Oh, I'm having super fun," he said. "Super fun."

Napier is wearing the big alien hat while he talks, adding some goofball credence to his "super fun" vow.

Yes, it may be just a hat. But it's the fact that the cat is wearing the hat that matters.

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