Napier different than Walker
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shabazz Napier is not Kemba Walker.
Has a similar game, can carry a team by himself. Not Kemba.
Plays much bigger than his size, fills up the stat sheet. Not Kemba.
Learned a lot from his mentor, occasionally borrows some of his moves. Not Kemba.
The similarities are unavoidable. The outcome, undecided; Walker led UConn to a national championship, Napier still needs two wins to become the leader who gets the ring.
But should he pull it off, bookend his career with the title he earned as Walker’s freshman understudy, Napier will thrust himself into a new one-name realm: Not Kemba. Shabazz.
"I sometimes see flashes ... but I don’t want him to be compared to me," said Walker, now a point guard for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. "He’s his own man and (a great) player. If he wins another championship, in my opinion, he’s above me and whatever I accomplished there. Honestly. If he wins a championship with this team he has right now, I’m out of the picture, for real."
Walker had one of the great runs in college basketball history, leading the Huskies through five wins in five days in the Big East tournament and a carry-them-on-my-back trip through the NCAA tournament.
On that team was a confident freshman point guard who was still willing to ask questions, taking his opportunities when they arose, learning what he didn’t know from Walker and the other Huskies. Napier played in every game that season, averaging 23 minutes, 7.8 points and three assists.
Flash forward three years and Napier has another title within his sights.
UConn must first get through Florida (36-2), the tournament’s top overall seed, in one national semifinal Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium.
After that, the Huskies (30-8) would have to beat Kentucky or Wisconsin on Monday night to win championship No. 4.
Finish it off and Napier will secure a spot in history -- alone.
"I just want to go out there, like I always say, and be myself," Napier said. "At the end of the day, he (Walker) took that team to a national championship and I want to do the same. But, I’m going to do it a different pathway and I’m going to be myself."
That the path is similar to Walker’s has led to the comparisons.
Walker was -- well, still is -- a slender point guard who was part scorer, part facilitator, beyond-his-size rebounder, defensive menace, clutch shooter.
The description fits Napier well.
A 6-foot-1 senior, he could have left the program after UConn was barred from the NCAA tournament last season for failing to meet academic standards. He stuck it out instead and returned to lead UConn with 18.1 points per game, 5.9 rebounds (tied with DeAndre Daniels), 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals.
Clutch? Napier hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Florida -- the Gators’ last loss before running off 30 straight wins -- and scored nine of his 24 points in UConn’s overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s in the Huskies’ NCAA tournament opener.
Napier also is an 86 percent free-throw shooter and at his best when the game is on the line, making all nine of his attempts -- three huge ones in the closing seconds -- in UConn’s Final Four-earning win over Michigan State in the East Regional final.
Napier is arguably the best player among these Final Four teams.
"Shabazz is a great player, a great leader and that’s the one thing I see: he’s an extension of me," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "I asked him to do a lot. Not only be a facilitator, but score out of necessity when we get down to the thick of the thing, the thick of a moment when he needs to make a play."
That’s where Napier may be the most like his mentor.
During Walker’s junior season, he hoisted the Huskies on his back, scoring an almost-unthinkable 130 points during the five days of the Big East tournament, and kept it going by practically willing UConn through the NCAA tournament.
Napier has taken the Huskies through a similar run. He bounced back from a missed buzzer beater in regulation to wear out Saint Joseph’s in overtime; scored 25 against Villanova; had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists in a win over Iowa State; sent the Huskies to the Final Four with a 25-6-4 performance that included three huge free throws with 30 seconds left against the Spartans.
"Everybody says I want five guys in double figures," said former UConn Jim Calhoun, who recruited Napier to Storrs. "The best guy should take the most shots and that’s what we do. You see a guy not having quite a sure shot, give it to Shabazz, let him make a play."
Just like Kemba.
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte and Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this story.
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