LAS VEGAS- Shabazz Napier has a set of skills you all know about; the slick handle, the pick-your-pocket defense and the winning pedigree with UConn’s national championship in April as Napier’s collegiate capstone.
The other skills he needs to pick up as his rookie season approaches will help determine how well the Miami Heat can fare in South Florida’s post-LeBron James era. With James gone, Napier is now a much more important part of the team than Miami management imagined.
Napier hit four of his five shots in Saturday’s win over Houston at the COX Pavilion with 11 points and five assists but, as you’d expect from a rookie, he’s still very much in the learning stage.
“It’s a learning experience. Whether it’s a good game or a bad game you have to look at the tape and figure out what you could do better,” Napier said. “It’s just a big learning experience that I’m trying to understand and so far it’s going well.”
When young players are interviewed by the media, they usually pinpoint one or two things they can improve on when asked the inevitable question of how they can get better. Napier was an exception to that rule.
“I want to improve on everything,” he said. “There’s not one thing I don’t want to improve on.”
Veteran forward Tyler Honeycutt was more direct, saying that he needed to limit his turnovers and that Napier would improve with better chemistry and more reps with his teammates.
Speaking of reps, Napier has gotten an opportunity that few high profile rookies get: playing in two summer leagues. This year, Miami competes in both the Orlando and the Las Vegas summer leagues, and Napier said he’s greatly benefited from that.
“It’s tremendous for me,” he told SheridanHoops. “It’s something I definitely needed.”
Napier and other Heat players maintained that learning to develop chemistry with new teammates on these hastily constructed Summer League squads was the toughest thing to adjust to.
“We’re just trying to get to know each other with the other teammates that we have and do it as quickly as we can,” Honeycutt said.
Napier has a doubly hard task of learning to co-exist with new teammates as not only the starting point guard, but someone the franchise is going to rely on for a long time.
“It’s always hard to play with new guys, regardless of position but a point guard especially because you have to learn everyone’s game,” said Heat center Justin Hamilton. “So I think he’s slowly learning our system and he’s going to get better and better.”
Miami traded up two spots with Charlotte to select Napier, who LeBron James publicly praised over the course of the last several months. Perhaps Pat Riley made the move for Napier thinking that the selection would appease James and help entice him to stay.
Clearly that didn’t work.
Napier was fairly abrasive when he was asked how he reacted to the news that James had officially signed in Cleveland on Friday.
“I didn’t,” he bluntly stated. “I don’t look into it. I go into each Summer League game trying to figure out what I can do best. When training camp starts, that’s the team I’m going to be with and I’m going to try my best to compete.”
The process of competing is something Napier seems to really enjoy and embrace. During the Houston game, Napier also displayed good quickness and speed, the handle on his dribble to elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd and the ability to pick players’ pockets defensively.
“He can break people off the dribble and it’s great to have that speed,” Hamilton said.
That speed helps, and will help, Miami on the defensive side as well. The Heat love to trap the ball and gamble for steals, which is something Napier excels at.
“It’s good to have that attacker on the ball,” Hamilton said. “He’ll give people problems.”
Napier summed up his defensive prowess in a pretty understated way. “You figure out what to do to help the team out and you could play good defense no matter what team you’re on,” he said.
With Napier on the Heat and LeBron James moving on, Napier’s development is now more important than the Miami Heat ever bargained for.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.