Shabazz Napier’s Draft Status Upped By Tournament, For Better Or Worse

Shabazz NapierGary Payton said on TV Tuesday morning that Shabazz Napier has to be a “top-five” draft pick. LeBron James tweeted there’s “no way” an NBA team could take another point guard before Napier in June’s draft.

Thank goodness neither of these guys are in charge of a front office.

After CBS studio analysts fell over themselves gushing about Napier, the star of UConn’s run to the NCAA men’s basketball championship, a casual observer could be forgiven for assuming the senior guard was a surefire lottery pick. After all, he is a “leader” who is “fearless” and just “knows how to win.” What other qualities do you possibly need in a No. 1 overall pick?

Lots, actually. So while Napier’s post-tournament bump could be the best thing to happen to him from a draft standpoint, in the long run, his performance over a few measly weeks in March will be irrelevant to his permanence as an NBA player.

Napier is far from the first scrappy college guard to turn into the sweetheart of the basketball world with a thrilling tourney run. There has been Khalid El-Amin, A.J. Price, Kemba Walker and even a few who didn’t go to UConn. Yet it didn’t help any of them enjoy more than a cup of coffee in the pros; Walker has stuck around because he’s good, not because he had a transcendent tournament in 2011. The shine of being a March hero dulls fairly quickly.

The shine can be lucrative, for sure. If Napier is bumped into the draft’s first round, rather than the second round in which he has been projected, his contract would be guaranteed, at least for his first season. A team that drafts him in the first round would be signaling a greater investment in him, which presumably means he would have more opportunities to learn through his growing pains. He also has ensured himself a place alongside Mateen Cleaves and Jay Williams as onetime March heroes who now opine on college hoops matters, if he chooses to enter broadcasting.

No, Napier should not trade the events of the last two weeks for anything.

But if Napier’s goal is more than just one year of relative security and a long career of hanging out with Greg Gumble, Monday’s game was only the beginning. Fans and media love to celebrate unlikely stars, but they also love to deride busts. Remember, Adam Morrison was once beloved, too.

The best anybody can do for Napier now is to be fair. Despite his strides this season, Napier is most likely still a “fringe NBA prospect at best,” as described in a DraftExpress profile. Nearly every report from scouts who have followed him for years — not less than a month, as Payton and James have, their present and future Hall of Fame stature notwithstanding — projects him as, at best, a potential solid backup who can run a pick-and-roll competently and possibly buy some minutes of rest for a quality starter. That’s his baseline.

Certainly, Napier could grow as a pro. His NBA future is in his hands. It is riding on his ability to overcome his weaknesses and amplify his strengths. Pretty soon, though — a lot sooner than he probably realizes — all of Napier’s accomplishments in this tournament will not amount to a hill of beans. It’s up to him whether this is his one shining moment or simply the start of something more.

Photo via Facebook/UConn Men’s Basketball

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