Shabazz Napier should be in New York making a run at another Big East tournament title with his University of Connecticut teammates. As a freshman, the guard was part of that special 2010-11 squad that made a stunning run through the NCAA Tournament all the way to the national championship with a victory over Butler.
Instead, Napier is in Storrs, the Huskies’ season over because of a below-average academic progress rate that led the NCAA to ban the school from postseason play for the 2012-13 season. The Huskies also changed coaches, with three-time national champion Jim Calhoun replaced by former player Kevin Ollie.
Bolting was an option for Napier, as it was for Alex Oriakhi, who left for Missouri, and Roscoe Smith, who chose UNLV. But Napier said he had no intention of leaving the school, and the Roxbury native turned in a first-team all-Big East campaign as a junior.
The point guard is now pondering whether to declare for the NBA draft, which is expected to be the weakest in years, or return to finish out his Connecticut career in the revamped Big East. It won’t be an easy decision for Napier, who attended Charlestown High School and Lawrence Academy before signing with the Huskies.
“It’s tough being at home, because I’m watching the game and can’t do nothing about it,” he said. “I can’t go out there and play, nothing can change, and that makes it tough, but I got myself mentally ready for this when I decided to stay at the university even though we had all these sanctions.
“We wanted to send a message that even though we’re going through these huge obstacles, we still can overcome them by staying together.”
Had they been eligible, the Huskies would have made the tournament with a 20-10 mark and 10-8 Big East record. UConn beat Michigan State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Cincinnati, with Napier as the team’s leading scorer.
“I’m a loyal person,” said Napier. “My mother taught me loyalty over everything, and it’s always good to be loyal to somebody.
“I told Coach Calhoun that I was going to be loyal to him no matter what happens. I was here during the national championship and I was here during the bad times. I wanted to try to make something good out of it. Personally, it was just tough because I didn’t know how the team was going to react or how I was going to react.”
The future is uncertain for Napier, who turns 22 in July. After averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds, he’s projected as a second-round pick or perhaps could go undrafted. A banner senior year would improve his stock.
“I actually talked to Coach Ollie the other day and told him I haven’t weighed any options,” Napier said. “My first option right now is to finish out school. I want to get my degree as quick as possible. I want to be ready for anything.
“I know my mother wants me to get my degree, that’s why I took classes in the summer since my freshman year. If I enter the draft, I am not going to forget about that.
“It is a tough decision. I am going to talk to Coach Ollie and Coach Calhoun, the right people, and make the right decision.”
Raptors move step by step
The Raptors are fighting the 76ers to stay out of last place in the Atlantic Division, but the Raptors are banking that this transition season — the beginning of the Rudy Gay era, perhaps the ushering out of Andrea Bargnani, and definitive defensive improvement — is the beginning of a return to respectability.
Toronto was once on the verge of reaching the NBA Finals when Vince Carter was there. Chris Bosh came along but was never able to carry the snake-bitten franchise any further than the first round of the playoffs, and this will be the fifth consecutive season the club is lottery-bound.
Because of the acquisition of Gay, a potential star, and the nucleus of DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are not such a laughingstock. And general manager Bryan Colangelo is cautiously optimistic about developing a winner north of the border.
“We started a process 2½ years ago when Chris left, and rebuilding’s not fun, not for the faint of heart,” he said. “But you know, you take these steps and you try to put yourself in a position to make steps.
“I think by virtue of us being real patient and strategic the last couple of years, this past summer we had a chance to pick up Kyle in a deal, and we had a chance to follow it up with [Gay]. That doesn’t happen if we had done something differently with Jose [Calderon] last year.”
The Raptors packaged Calderon in deal with Memphis and Detroit to acquire Gay. Calderon had been the subject of trade rumors for several years.
“You’re talking about a team that’s really young,” Colangelo said. “You’ve got a changing dynamic, you’ve got new faces. Right now, there’s a little bit of a settling-in process for everyone to kind of understand what we have. But what we feel we have after the horrendous start [4-19] is a playoff-caliber team because we’re playing .500 ball.
“But I think this team is going to get much better just through internal growth.”
The Raptors have a pair of up-and-comers in former lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas and last year’s first-rounder Terrence Ross, who won the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend.
Victories have been difficult against the tougher teams. Toronto led Golden State heading into the fourth quarter last week and collapsed in the final period. The West Coast trip became even more infuriating when the Raptors practically had the Lakers beaten before Kobe Bryant went 3-point crazy and sent the game into overtime.
Those games can be viewed as building blocks, but Colangelo is getting weary of moral victories.
“We’ve got to learn how to win those games, and that’s going to be the biggest difference,” he said. “It’s a fine line in this business.”
Of course, Toronto’s biggest issue has been keeping its stars. Marcus Camby, Damon Stoudamire, Carter, and Bosh all came to Toronto with high hopes. All were traded or left town with expectations unmet.
Gay is next in line, and he said he’s warming to the Canadian lifestyle.
“Since I’ve been there, I’ve loved it,” Gay said. “It’s been great. The fans are great, and it’s a great organization. I love it so far. Instead of complaining about it, you’ve got to embrace it. It’s by far not a bad situation.”
Colangelo realizes there’s a stigma about playing in Toronto, but said, “There is a higher level of credibility with Rudy on our team — call it star power the great talent that he is. I’m going to tell you that the guys we’ve had in Toronto love the city, love the way they’ve been treated, and it’s a top five North American city, hands down.
“Let me tell you something, it’s cold everywhere on the East Coast. And it’s not as north as everyone thinks.”
NO HARD FEELINGS
Lee shrugs off Howard’s rant
Don’t count Celtics guard Courtney Lee as one of those offended by Dwight Howard’s comments about his ex-teammates on the Magic. Lee was on that 2009 Magic club that came within three games of an NBA championship. Lee was soon traded to the Nets in the Vince Carter deal as the Magic tried revamping for another run that never happened.
Howard angered several of his former teammates last week, saying Orlando had players that no other teams wanted, and suggesting the Magic were a bunch of underdogs when they defeated the Celtics and then the Cavaliers to reach the Finals, where they lost to the Lakers.
Lee said he did not take the comments personally, and he credited Howard with doing most of the arduous work in that playoff run.
“I don’t think he was necessarily trying to bash the players,” Lee said. “But it’s a true statement. He was the anchor. He took us there. He was our go-to guy.
“But as far as nobody wanting us, what did [Hedo] Turkoglu get? $55 million? Rashard [Lewis] got $100-something million [$118 million]. Jameer [Nelson], he got $40 million. So people definitely wanted those guys. I don’t think he was meaning it in that sense.”
Lee knows Howard has been widely criticized for his personality during his time with the Lakers, but says the big man was the same way with the Magic — it was just taken in a different way on a team with lower expectations and in a smaller market.
“It’s hard to point that out then because it was working for us,” Lee said. “Dwight could be himself and we were winning games. You only bring up all that stuff when teams are losing. The way he left was kind of sour. But when I was there, it was hard to point that out because we were winning.”
The fact that Lee, Howard, and others in the nucleus such as Turkoglu, Nelson, and J.J. Redick led the Magic to their second Finals appearance is not lost on that group four years later.
“Everybody on that team to this day is still tight,” said Lee. “All-Star Weekend, when I went home to Orlando, because both of my cars are [in Boston], Jameer let me ride in one of his cars. I’ve seen Turk a couple of times and we went out to eat.”
Pacers’ Green learns on fly
Gerald Green was the last player to leave an Indiana shootaround recently, working feverishly on his long-range shot and then accepting an offer to compete in a 3-point contest with assistant coach Brian Shaw.
While Green landed the first secure contract of his career with the Pacers — three years, $10 million — his first season with that security has been disappointing.
Entering Saturday, he was shooting just 34.2 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from the 3-point line after 48.1 and 39.1 in a 31-game stint with the Nets last season. His minutes have been taken by the emerging Lance Stephenson, which means Green will have to earn his playing time through positive practices and perhaps good fortune.
Green is not pouting. His road took him to the NBADL and Russia after being a first-round pick of the Celtics in 2005. Green is trying to take the positives from his experience with a team expected to contend for the Eastern Conference championship.
“I’m with a good team,” he said. “I’m learning a lot of good stuff this year, about how the best teams prepare and how the best teams come together as one and do the little things that you may not see in the scouting report but that helps us to win games.
“I’m learning a lot from these guys. I feel like I’m in a good situation.”
One thing Green isn’t concerned with is job security. When he was playing on 10-day contracts or nonguaranteed deals, he felt the pressure to perform immediately. He has been slow developing with the Pacers, but the contract brings relief.
Green had played in 48 games entering Saturday, averaging 6.4 points.
“It definitely feels good, especially the journey I’ve been through,” he said. “Just to feel like I’m a part of something this good, something this great, I couldn’t ask for better.
“Obviously, everybody wants to play, but I understand that I might have another opportunity in the near future. I have to be ready for it.”
Is Perkins too pricy?
There will be some interesting decisions this summer in terms of veteran contracts and the amnesty clause. One of those players could be Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins, who is scheduled to earn $17.5 million over the next two years and be the team’s fourth-highest-paid player. Perkins has been a visible leader for the Thunder, but the cost-conscious club may seek a more productive center in the free agent market for a lower price. The Celtics did not sign Perkins to a four-year, $30 million extension because they were wary about the health of his knees. While the Thunder have been pleased with Perkins’s production, they just extended Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison, because of his front-loaded contract, is due $4.7 million over the next two seasons.
Although he has been with five teams over his 15 years, Antawn Jamison has turned in quite a solid career. Entering Saturday he was just 203 points from the 20,000 mark, which would make him the 39th player to reach it. Jamison has more points than Scottie Pippen, Bernard King, Isiah Thomas, and Gail Goodrich.
The Knicks are expected to sign Kenyon Martin for the rest of the season. He has become a major asset since Amar’e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace sustained season-ending injuries. There was concern among several teams that Martin would be a locker-room distraction considering his past issues with Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, but reports out of New York say he has been a welcome presence . . . A major question in Portland is whether the Trail Blazers should begin preparing for next season by playing some youngsters and pull back on their quest for the eighth playoff spot in the West. The Trail Blazers need to see whether players such as Will Barton and Meyers Leonard are future cornerstones . . . The Raptors are developing an offseason program for center Jonas Valanciunas after meeting with his agent, Leon Rose. Valanciunas is expected to play most of September with the Lithuanian national team before rejoining the Raptors for training camp. Save for a hand injury that cost him six weeks, Valanciunas has enjoyed a capable rookie season, averaging 7.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wires services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.