With each passing preseason game, Heat rookie point guard Shabazz Napier is providing more and more proof that LeBron James’ skills as an evaluator of talent might be better than previously thought.
Napier struggled mightily during the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues, but that was expected after the former Connecticut star was tabbed as the best point guard in the NBA Draft by James when James was still with the Heat.
Although there was a time not too long ago when the Heat’s decision to draft Napier based partly on James’ input seemed like a questionable decision, that narrative is fading away fast.
Over the past few games, Napier at times has looked like the Heat’s most natural point guard, and on Saturday in San Antonio he scored 25 points to lead the Heat to a 111-108 preseason overtime victory over the Spurs.
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Napier is saying all the right things after practice and games — about how he’s soaking up everything like a sponge — but his ability to run the Heat’s offense and make those around him better is beginning to shine through. If he continues to improve at such a rapid pace, the Heat might have a three-way point guard controversy on its hands faster than anticipated.
“He just needs to keep working,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday, trying to downplay Napier’s 25-point breakout. “That’s the only message I’ve given him. We have seen a residual from all the time he has put in, but we’re not drawing any conclusions at this point.”
Still, the poise and confidence Napier displayed at UConn to lead the Huskies to a national championship is beginning to translate to his professional game. His quick decisions, court vision and pass-first mentality have been recognized by the entire team.
“Him playing four years has helped him out a lot, and I think it has made him NBA ready,” center Chris Bosh said. “Whenever he’s called on, I think he’ll give us good minutes.”
The Heat’s point-guard position — and the offense in general — has been transitioning fitfully this preseason from the multi-talented James to something more traditional. Mario Chalmers began the preseason as the starter, but Spoelstra quickly made the switch to Norris Cole. Cole is expected to be the opening-night starter for the Heat while Chalmers is a better option off the bench, but Napier gives the team a solid third option.
That’s something the team lacked even when James was on the roster.
Still, trying to play without James has been tedious this October. Patience with the team’s point guards has been a constant theme.
“We’re going to be reliant on those guys to handle the ball a lot more for us,” Bosh said. “Before, we had the luxury of having LeBron be that big point guard and get us into our sets, and [Cole and Chalmers] could kind of take it off a little bit and get in the corner and make plays. But now they’re going to have to be the ones calling the plays, getting everyone set, making that extra pass and making the game easier for everybody else.”
Heat center Justin Hamilton participated in half of the Heat’s practice Monday and could be cleared for full contact as soon as Wednesday. He isn’t expected to play in Tuesday’s game against Houston.
Hamilton has missed most of training camp after being diagnosed with a heart flutter. He was treated for the condition during the first week of training camp. Hamilton played for the Heat’s D-League affiliate last year, and the team has been excited about his potential this preseason.
A 6-11 center, Hamilton has developed into a tough-minded big man with good hands and a reliable outside jump shot.
“You always concerned when someone says ‘heart,’ and you don’t know what’s going on, but I was really relieved once they knew what was happening and they were able to take care of it really quick,” Hamilton said. “They said it would never come back again, so I was really relieved.”
Hamilton experienced some light-headedness before being pulled out of practice earlier in training camp. He then underwent a non-evasive heart procedure to treat an arrhythmia. He was taken off blood-thinning pills Monday.