Shabazz at the Point

STORRS, Conn. – When Kemba Walker says that Shabazz Napier spoke a lot last season when he wasn't supposed to, he's only slightly kidding. When coach Jim Calhoun talks about walking past Napier on the basketball court or in a hallway, and says that he raises his index finger to his lips to subtly tell his guard not to speak, he is just slightly exaggerating.

Napier, Connecticut's sophomore point guard, has a passion for basketball that is perhaps only matched by his passion for talking. Napier likes to make things happen on the court and then he likes to talk about it. He can fill up a reporter's notebook and provide the perfect sound bite for the late night newscast.

It isn't arrogance. It enthusiasm for what he does – plain and simple. The guy likes to have fun and win.

And now, with Walker moving on to bigger and better things (if the NBA ever has a season), Napier suddenly finds himself running the show for the defending national champions. He will be UConn's starting point guard. He and Alex Oriakhi have been named co-captains. And he is going to be counted on for leadership – on and off the floor.

What happens in the next few weeks will determine whether or not this becomes Napier's team, but one way or another, it is clear he must have a major role.

"He's become so important for us," Calhoun said Friday night at UConn's First Night. "He's the guy who is running your team. The bottom line is that he can run a team under duress and he can do some special things. His leadership will be vitally needed."

Napier was all business at during player introductions at First Night. While the rest of his teammates danced their way onto the floor, Napier put his head down and entered with a stoic expression. Later in the night he was a star of the production with some nifty assists to his teammates during the dunk contest.

But Napier learned his lessons well from Walker and Donnell Beverly last season. He and Oriakhi know there are no shortcuts when preparing for a new season.

"The way we've been going at it, working out and lifting, it has been 10 times better than what we did last year," Napier said. "That's a great thing to be hearing. We won it last year and if we keep pushing, good things are in store for us.

"Their job last year was much harder because we had seven freshmen. Our job here is much easier because we already set the tone. The freshmen understand ‘You're here to help us, you're not here to help yourselves.' … Everyone loves success. Everyone likes winning. But you've got to understand how much hard work it takes to win."

Freshman Ryan Boatright will be the backup point guard and Calhoun said swingman Jeremy Lamb will have the ball in hands during practice in an effort to build depth at the point.

Napier says Boatright, listed at a generous 6-feet tall, is athletic and quick.

"I tell you right now it's hard to guard him," Napier said. "He has the same problem I had last year; understanding the game. But he's learning it quicker than I did. I started learning at the end of the season. He's going to make it easier for myself and other guys."

Napier wants to do things his way. He wants to get his teammates in scoring position and he wants to hit his own shots when they are open.

"I'm not trying to be Kemba," he said. "I'm going to be Shabazz. I'm not the guy who wants to be the star. I want to win.

"[My teammates] understand I'm a leader. They gave me a chance to be a leader. They listen to me well. And I'm never going to put my teammates in bad situations. My passion for the game is incredible and I love winning."

And he still loves to talk. That's going to result in more ribbing from his teammates and coaches this year. Calhoun couldn't resist as he addressed the capacity crowd Friday night and talked about what made "the difference" on the way to the national championship.

"Shabazz thought it was him," Calhoun told the crowd. "But it was you."

On a more serious note, Calhoun said, "Every guy is important to us. There are 11 guys we are building around. But the point guard . . . I've been doing this for 40 years and the point guard becomes an incredibly important guy.

"He doesn't always have to be that spectacular. But he has to be the guy who takes you different places and gets the ball to the people you need to get it to."

First Night Notes:

Sophomore swingman Niels Giffey was the easy winner of the three-point contest and freshman guard Ryan Boatright thrilled the crowd on the way to winning the slam dunk contest. Giffey finished with 19 points shooting from five ball racks in a one-minute drill. He easily outdistanced Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (12 points), Bria Hartley (11) and DeAndre Daniels (5) and then was speechless during his interview. . . . The crowd got a glimpse of Boatright's leaping ability when he took a pass from Napier sitting in a chair in the lane. Boatright then jumped over Napier and dunked, which must have given Calhoun a bit of a start. . . . Later, Shabazz passed the ball off the side of the backboard, Boatright caught the ball, and executed a 360-degree dunk. "The little man has got some bounce," said ESPN's Doris Burke, one of the judges for the contest. Boatright beat fellow freshman Andre Drummond in a dunk off, winning with a lob to himself and a reverse dunk. . . . UConn officials said there was a capacity crowd for the First Night festivities. It certainly was a drastic contrast to last year's event, which was not well attended, and might have been the biggest crowd in the history of the event. . . . Former men's standouts Rudy Johnson, Hasheem Thabeet, Kemba Walker and Ray Allen were in attendance and participated as judges for the men's dunk contest and women's dance contest. . . . Drummond received a deafening ovation from the crowd during introductions. . . . Junior guard Caroline Doty, returning to action after her third ACL knee surgery, arrived on a scooter during introductions. . . . But the biggest round of applause had to be for Walker. The students in the crowd chanted "Kemba Walker… Kemba Walker" on several occasions. . . . Omar Calhoun, who has committed to UConn from the class of 2012, was said to be among the crowd. Other recruits expected to visit (but not confirmed) were Austin Colbert, Chris Baldwin, Chris Obekpa, Jaylen Brantley, Jeremy Miller, Kaleb Joseph, Kuran Iverson, Kyle Washington, Noah Vonleh, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. . . . The night ended with Jeremy Lamb teaching UConn president Susan Herbst the moves to the "Lamb Shake" dance he has made famous on YouTube. Lamb said Herbst did "all right."

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