In one instant this summer, Heat guard Shabazz Napier went from LeBron James’ handpicked point guard to just another undersized summer-league rookie trying to shoot above 30 percent from three-point range.
Those games in Orlando this summer were brutally humbling for Napier before James announced his decision. Then, immediately after James’ letter went public, the shock was so severe for Napier that he wouldn’t even acknowledge a reporter’s presence — never mind answer a question — as he walked to the Heat’s team bus outside Amway Center.
Welcome to the cold-hearted league, rookie.
It’s not fair to Napier to call him the collateral damage of the Heat’s failed free-agency battle with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but until he proves himself on the court, one major question is going to linger like winter humidity in Miami: Would the Heat have moved up in the draft to grab Napier if James hadn’t endorsed him on Twitter?
“No way [you] take another PG in the lottery before Napier,” James tweeted at the conclusion of the NCAA championship game.
And then: “My favorite player in the draft! #Napier”.
Napier scored 22 points in Connecticut’s championship game against Kentucky, earning the Final Four MVP Award. In his final four games of the summer-league circuit, Napier shot less 22 percent from the field.
Then he went to work.
And he has gotten a little better, and wiser.
“You kind of look at yourself in the mirror when adversity hits; you kind of figure out who you are,” Napier said. “Some people go in a shell. I understand adversity is going to hit no matter what you do in life.
“Where I’m at, there’s no reason for me to be in a shell. I’m going to learn from it, and I’m going to keep going on.”
Napier went from doing no wrong at the collegiate level to doing little right during his first taste of professional basketball. He was billed as a player seasoned by four years of college with top-flight coaching. Instead, Napier appeared a little overwhelmed.
“When it gets to an elite it’s a whole different ballgame,” Napier said. “It’s just repetition. There are going to continue to be growing pains and it’s not going to be easy. No one ever said it was, and no one kind of took the game by storm unless he was a big man who could command it.
“I’m just going to take it day by day, and any opportunities I get, I’m going to try to go out there and do my best.”
Napier has had trouble adjusting to a few of the differences between the college and NBA games but this past week has offered a few reassurances that he can help the Heat this season. This is no time to panic, after all. Napier’s rookie season hasn’t even officially started.
And, in an odd twist, drafting Napier has provided some depth in the wake of James’ departure.
James was introduced before each game with the Heat as a forward, but he also was the team’s best point guard. The Heat will need more than Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers this season to navigate the position.
“This team will probably be a team that will utilize its versatility, putting guys at different positions,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He just has to keep on working to get better. He’s putting in a lot of time.”
Filling in for Chalmers as the Heat’s backup point guard on Tuesday, Napier went 4 of 8 from the field, 1 of 1 from three-point range and 3 of 4 from the free-throw line while dishing out four assists to just one turnover. It was the first time Napier has played something other than trash-time minutes for the Heat.
On Wednesday, after a long practice session, Napier was one of the last players in the gym. Catch-and-shoot three-pointers are a staple of the Heat’s offense, and Napier was making about the same number as he missed.
“It’s a work in progress,” Napier said of adjusting to NBA-range three-pointers. “It’s just consistency. It’s something you just got to get better at. It is further, but my legs were so used to muscle memory of shooting college threes.
“I just continue to work on it and work on it, and hopefully it gets to a point where I can step back another two [feet].”