Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Escaping shadow of LeBron James’ tweet, Shabazz Napier seizing opportunity with Trail Blazers

6 Comments

DETROIT – When Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to the 2014 national title, LeBron James – then with the Heat and months before free agency – tweeted:

That was atypical thinking. Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were generally rated higher than Napier, and Elfrid Payton also got drafted higher. Napier was commonly seen as a second-round pick.

Miami traded up to get him with the No. 24 pick, anyway. Though Heat president Pat Riley downplayed LeBron’s involvement in the selection, LeBron was clearly pleased.

But LeBron still bolted for the Cavaliers a couple weeks later, leaving Napier in Miami with an organization that wasn’t necessarily sold on him.

“I knew for a fact they picked me because LeBron,” Napier said. “Which is understandable. I would want to keep the best player on the planet, too. So, that sucked for me.”

Napier tried not to let it affect him, but he couldn’t help but notice how LeBron’s tweet loomed over his pro career.

“To everyone else, it was big. Whenever he says something, it’s big. And that’s because of the impact he has,” Napier said. “But, to me as a person, I always try to live in the moment. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, this guys said my name.’ He doesn’t make that big of an impact on my life.

“Unless it’s like my mother or something like that, no one else has a big impact on my life to make me feel a certain way.”

Napier said he lacked confidence throughout his rookie year, taking the blame for that and noting he was too immature. But he also clearly believes he deserved more than fringe-rotation minutes.

“I felt like they didn’t really give me an opportunity,” Napier said.

The next offseason, the Heat traded him to the Magic of practically no return.

“When I went to Orlando, I thought there was going to be an opportunity,” Napier said. “But there wasn’t, really.”

Napier’s production regressed, as his role shrunk even further. He didn’t look cut out for the NBA.

After only one year, Orlando sent him to the Trail Blazers – again, for no real return. In Portland, his role remained minor last season and to begin this season.

But Napier appears to be finally coming into his own.

Shooting more efficiently than ever while remaining pesky defensively, Napier ranks sixth among backup point guards in real plus-minus:

image

Napier has made solid gains in most facets of his game, but the biggest change has come with interior scoring. At 6-foot-1, he struggled mightily in the paint against bigger NBA players. After shooting 39% his first three years, Napier has made 57% of his shots in the restricted area this season.

His 3-point percentage has also improved – to 40%, up from 35% his first three seasons. The outside-inside game is producing 9.4 points in 21.6 minutes per game, tilting defenses and creating passing lanes.

Napier can sometimes get overpowered defensively, but he makes up for it with a knack for getting steals.

Important for any Trail Blazers role player, Napier also plays well with both C.J. McCollum (+6.7 points per 100 possessions) and Damian Lillard (+10.9 points per 100 possessions).

But Napier might not be long for Portland.

The Trail Blazers already have $110,456,026 committed to just eight players next season, and that doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. The luxury-tax concerns don’t dissipate in 2019-20, when Portland has $110,128,053 committed to seven players (including rookie-scale options for Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, but not a probably re-signed Nurkic).

Considering their ability to stagger Lillard and McCollum as lead guards, the Trail Blazers might deem Napier a luxury they can’t afford. Heck, they might not even extend his $3,452,308 qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.

The way Napier is playing, he might fetch more in free agency. Plenty of teams could use him as a backup point guard, and someone could devote a nice chunk of its mid-level exception to signing Napier.

If he’s bound to leave Portland this summer, could the Trail Blazers preemptively trade him for return before Thursday’s deadline? They should consider it. Shedding him and a minimum-salary player (Pat Connaughton or Jake Layman) would allow Portland to dodge the tax this season.

But tied for sixth in the West at 29-25, the Trail Blazers are also trying to win this season. Having Napier helps. It’s unclear how a cost-cutting move would sit with Lillard.

No matter where he ends the season, free agency will be a big opportunity for Napier. After four years at UConn, he’s already 26. This could be his only shot at a major payday.

Portland coach Terry Stotts credited Napier with working extremely hard last summer in advance of a contract year. That’s why Stotts believes Napier has improved so much, though he recognizes another explanation.

“Probably, if you ask him, he’s given an opportunity,” Stotts said.

In that regard, Napier has finally found a team on the same page as him.

“Everyone talks about I’m playing better,” Napier said. “I think it’s just all about opportunity.”

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.

Report: Terry Stotts to remain Trail Blazers coach next season

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts
Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Trail Blazers had big expectations after reaching the 2019 Western Conference finals and signing their top players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, to lucrative contract extensions.

Instead, Portland (26-32) is in a dogfight with the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns and Kings for the No. 8 seed.

Often, teams underperforming like that fire their coach.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

A source with knowledge of coach Terry Stotts’ situation said there’s no reason to believe he’s in any danger this summer, regardless of how this turns out.

Stotts has a few things working in his favor:

So expect Stotts back next season. But also expect him to face a little more pressure. Even if a lot of what wrong this season wasn’t his fault, losing tends to increase scrutiny on the coach.

In his eighth season with the Trail Blazers, Stotts is the NBA’s fourth-longest-tenured coach (behind only the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Heat’s Erick Spoelstra and Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle). It just becomes increasingly more difficult for Stotts to meet the high expectations he has helped set in Portland.

For now, though, Stotts appears to remain ahead of the curve.

Stephen Curry reportedly will return to Warriors lineup Sunday vs. Wizards

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

After four months off, the Warriors were looking for a soft landing spot to ease Stephen Curry back into the rotation.

How about Sunday, vs. Washington and the worst defense in the NBA this season?

That’s the plan, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Curry has said for some time he was targeting March 1 for a return, this would be that exact date (to be fair to the Wizards, they have played better defense of late). After that, Golden State plays at Denver on the third, has a Finals rematch against Toronto at the Chase Center on March 5, then the 76ers visit the Warriors on the seventh.

Curry suffered a fractured hand just four games into the season when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him. Recovery required two surgeries, one to put pins in to stabilize the bone through the healing process, then a second one to remove those pins once the recovery was far enough along.

While some fans had called for Curry to sit out the season and tank, Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphatically shot that idea down. As he should.

For one thing, Kerr wants to build some familiarity and chemistry between Curry and newly acquired Andrew Wiggins this season. Having Curry back may mean the Warriors don’t finish with the worst record in the league this season (which they have right now) but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not as big an issue. Besides, this is not a deep draft. This is not a situation where the Warriors will get instant help — in our podcast recently, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons. The Warriors may ultimately try to trade their pick for a player who can help more next season.

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

Leave a comment

The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.