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Player Preview: Point Guard Shabazz Napier

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Meet the newest point guard in town.

NBA: Minnesota Timebrwolves-Media Day Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It was a summer of change in Wolves World. There was enough turnover in the front office, coaching staff, and playing group to make any fan’s head spin. One of those new faces was Shabazz Napier, the 28-year-old journeyman who accompanied Treveon Graham in a trade that brought him to the Twin Cities.

After cementing his name in UConn history as the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player back in 2014, Napier has failed to find a real home in the NBA. He started with LeBron James in Miami, followed by stints in Orlando and Portland, before last season in Brooklyn.

Overall, he was probably better behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland, but Napier was still a high-quality back-up for Kenny Atkinson’s Nets. He averaged career-highs in points (9.4), assists (2.6), and 3-pointers made per game (1.4). However, his efficiency suffered, shooting a disheartening 38.9 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep.

Napier isn’t a table-setting floor general. Unlike his predecessor Tyus Jones, he isn’t going to spend his energy and effort making his teammates better by spoon-feeding them the ball in their hot zones. Instead, his first instinct is to get his own. That’s not to say he can’t play helper, he is quick and shifty in the pick-and-roll and still has a knack for finding his bigs, but he doesn’t have a compulsion for dishing like some other point guards.

When he is shooting a respectable 42 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from long-range as he did back in 2017-18, Napier possesses enough firepower to be a handy reserve gunner. Although, If he can’t bounce back from his year-long slump, he can be a mini-black hole on the offensive end. Minnesota does need scoring off the bench, but they need it to come efficiently.

Standing generously at 6-foot-1 and weighing in at a slight 180 lbs, he isn’t going to finish at a high level at the rim. He finished last season shooting under 60 percent from 0-3 feet and under 30 percent from 3-10 feet, according to Basketball Reference. That’s not going to strike fear into anyone opponent’s heart. He did up his free throw rate to a career-best 31.7 percent last season, which is crucial if he isn’t going to convert inside at effectively.

Napier’s offensive staple is his shooting. Without being a certified shot doctor, it passes the eye test for a pretty-looking jumper. His two seasons prior to 2018-19 were both at around 37 percent from distance, so that helps his case, too. Minnesota is arguably the worst 3-point shooting unit in the league right now, so Bazz getting back to his old self is absolutely vital if this team — particularly the reserves — wants to survive the brutality of the Western Conference.

With only Jeff Teague slotted ahead of him on the depth chart, Napier will get his chance to prove whether or not he can be a fulcrum of the back-up offense. That might be the one thing we’re certain of. That and the fact he is nearly the polar opposite of Jones, which could end in several different ways.

Defensively, the former Husky is a strange case study. He is clearly undersized and he has never had a reputation for his defensive work, yet Napier’s numbers are far from awful. His defensive player impact plus/minus (+0.9) was an elite number for a point guard, ranking him above defensive stalwarts like Patrick Beverley, Ben Simmons, and even our very own Tyus Jones.

He is a heady defender who knows when to gamble for steals, how to switch effectively, and how to play within the confines of a team defense. For that reason, his size has never tanked his team’s defense. In Brooklyn, the Nets were 5.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the floor. The season before that, Portland was 1.9 points per 100 possessions better.

Like the shooting, Minnesota has been renowned as a wretched defensive team for longer than most care to remember. If Napier can bring his smart defense to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he will instantly become a fan favorite.

When you consider that he will earn just $1.8 million for the upcoming season, Napier will probably be worth the investment. If all of his appetizing features pop, he could be a stone-cold steal.