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."

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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