I remember two Decembers ago, after a Shabazz Napier six-point, seven-rebound, nine-assist, four-steal performance against Harvard, answering question on this blog: Who will be the better pro — Napier or A.J. Price?
I remember writing, “We’ll have to see how Big East play goes, but at the moment, A.J. Price is the better college player.” I remember, in the poll next to the article, more people voted for Price (51 percent) than Napier (49).
And then this past November, I checked the pulse of UConn fans again: Rank the past four point guards — Napier, Kemba Walker, Price and Marcus Williams.
All ranked Walker first. Most agreed that Napier had a solid chance to distance himself from Price and Williams and move into second.
As I write this, five full days removed from the 2014 national championship, I’m still in awe of what happened. The debate is no longer Napier or Price or Williams or Khalid El-Amin; it’s Napier or Walker. It’s Napier or Emeka Okafor or Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton.
Is Shabazz Napier the best player in program history?
Depends how you define it.
I wrestled with my decision for No. 1— first I had Kemba Walker, only because I could never fathom another UConn player carrying his team the way Kemba Walker did in 2011. Then I realized what had happened here, this run slightly more unbelievable than that of ’11, and then I had Emeka Okafor because Emeka Okafor is safe choice. He was the undisputed best player in the country for the clear No. 1 team in the country.
Yet my mind kept replaying Napier’s killer 3-pointer from the top of the key over Michigan State’s Branden Dawson, the shot of his career. And the buzzer-beater on Florida in December. And the step-back in the corner against Kentucky. And so, so many others.
I can’t tell you with absolute certainty that Shabazz Napier is the best player to ever wear a UConn jersey, but I can tell you he’s the most devastating shot-maker. It’s not even close. Kemba Walker is a distant No. 2 in the volume of clutch shots and the degree of clutchness.
And, no, Shabazz Napier didn’t win the national championship by himself—Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels elevated their games much like Jeremy Lamb did through the 2011 run — but Napier won with no inside presence and no other first round NBA talent.
The 2011 team was better than this 2014 squad.
And this 2014 squad had a highly difficult road, knocking off two top 10 teams (Villanova and Iowa State), the two favorites in the tournament (Michigan State and Florida) and then the nation’s most talented team (Kentucky) en route to its title. The road in 2011 doesn’t compare.
Shabazz Napier leaves as the only star player with two national titles (and remember: he played a role in the first one) . He leaves with the most NCAA tournament wins (12) in program history. He leaves fourth in scoring (1,959 points), third in assists (646) and second in steals (251). He led UConn in rebounding with 5.9 per game through this past regular season.
He pioneered UConn through a postseason ban, too (although it’s hard to factor that into the equation because it’s unfair to Okafor, Allen, Walker and all those who didn’t face such bizarre hardship).
Even so, the case for Shabazz Napier is compelling. If you examine everything — the killer shots, the stats, the way he led and the way UConn won — you might arrive where I did: Shabazz Napier has leapfrogged everybody.
He got my first-place vote in the media poll below, and also received first-place votes from Wayne Norman, UConn’s longtime radio color analyst, and John Silver of the Manchester Journal-Inquirer and SNY.
That wasn’t enough, though. Too many had Napier in the middle or bottom of the top 10. Here’s how the voting shook out:
Top Ten Media Poll
Rank/First place votes/Total points
- Emeka Okafor (4)….97
- Ray Allen (2)…89
- Richard Hamilton (1)…86
- Kemba Walker (1)….81
- Shabazz Napier (3)….72
- Donyell Marshall….56
- Ben Gordon….41
- Caron Butler….38
- Chris Smith….22
- Khalid El-Amin…11
The following media members voted: Joe D’Ambrosio (WTIC), Wayne Norman (WTIC), John Silver (Manchester Journal-Inqurier/SNY), Chris Elsberry (Connecticut Post), Mike Dimauro (New London Day), Kevin Duffy (Connecticut Post), Tyler Wilkinson (ADimeBack.com), Patrick Tiscia (LitchfieldCountySports.com), Noah Finz (WTNH), John Holt (Channel 3), Neill Ostrout (Manchester Journal-Inquirer).