The Shabazz Napier opinion cycle with the Miami Heat has been a very strange one.
For one, he was a very popular, national title winning player at the University of Connecticut. He was very productive and it was looked at as good value when the Miami Heat were able to land him late in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft.
And then came an overreaction to his summer league, where he shot a horrific percentage and struggled. The residue from this performance has been enough to question whether he's even ready for a rotation spot on a team with two veteran point guards ahead of him on the depth chart.
The really weird thing about that was people we're awfully quick to get down on Napier after two weeks against mostly college players and players on roster bubbles, yet his last two seasons playing high level college basketball at a high level were somehow dismissed upon this new information.
But the reality is the same one when the Heat drafted him in July: Napier is a brilliant talent.
Let's take a moment to look at one of his better performances in summer league play.
SUMMER LEAGUE WAS....PROMISING
Obviously, Shabazz missed a bunch of shots this summer, and looked uncomfortable most of the time. I'm more interested in evaluating a young players tools than I am stressing over his box score in this instance, especially because of his college track record.
Let's go through a few plays from this Nets game:
0:22: Shabazz throws a perfect lob pass to Justin Hamilton on a high pick-and-roll. Hamilton finishes the alley-oop.
0:28: Shabazz runs a side pick-and-roll, again with Hamilton, and this time delivers a perfect backhanded bounce pass between Mason Plumlee's legs for another easy Hamilton finish. Notice he sets this up with a nice pump fake to freeze Plumlee.
0:50: Napier drills a spot up 3-pointer on the right wing.
1:06: Napier throws an overhead bounce pass to James Ennis, who is nicely filling his lane in transition, for a dunk. Napier leads him perfectly into the play.
I'm going to leave it at those four plays because they highlight four very real NBA skills that will translate, just as they are beginning to in preseason play. A high pick-and-roll, a side pick-and-roll, a spot up 3-pointer and good outlet passing are four things an NBA point guard should be strong at.
MORE PRESEASON FLASHES
Like summer league, I'm not overly concerned with his stat lines, and although they do reflect the progress we should have projected, he continues to display an NBA-ready skill set with special, rare tools.
I don't have the video (thanks a lot Synergy!), but in this preseason I've seen Shabazz drop accurate bounce passes out of the pick-and-roll, as well as lobs, including more of those crafty pump fakes and hesitations to make sure the pass is on time against a recovering defender. On another level, I've seen Shabazz show enough awareness to make a skip pass in a pick-and-roll situation (two passes away). I've seen his body not tell the defender where his passes are going.
I've seen Shabazz show an ability to get his shot off at any time. We also see more good, decisive and accurate lead passes in transition.
Napier has a real point guard tool: He see's things two and three passes away.
He's an instinctual playmaker. A player who can break opponents off the dribble and create not only for himself but others. Armed with an impressive handle, it's his instincts and vision that separate him. He's also gifted at changing speeds and being elusive. It's a tough skill to teach. Norris Cole, for instance, is fast, but isn't deceptive with this. His drives to the basket are usually straight line dives to the bucket that yield poor results.
I'm not saying Napier is a franchise changing player, but I'm absolutely asserting he's easily a better option than Mario Chalmers and Cole as the point guard of the Miami Heat.
Napier will never shoot a high field goal percentage, because finishing at the rim consistently in the NBA will always be a challenge. But Napier did several things at Connecticut that kept his true shooting percentage very high. He shot over 40 percent from distance in his last two seasons and had a healthy free throw rate. You can see his big bump as an upperclassmen at Connecticut here.
We have to see how it translates, but like his other skills, it looks good this preseason.
Cole got to the line at a healthy rate at Cleveland State, but his inability to get there in the NBA is a big reason why he's one of the most ineffective rotation players in this league. Spoelstra has been auditioning Cole as his starter the past few games, but his lack of 3-point shooting ability would be a big wart in an offense that already has questionable spacing.
Napier may not be the one-on-one defender Cole is, but he is a willing defender with quick hands and instincts that shouldn't be a liability.
Chalmers, on the other hand, remains a solid option to start ahead of Napier, with his shooting being coveted and the experience and trust edge with the coaching staff. He can make some plays in the passing game as well.
But when comparing Napier to Chalmers, there's just another level of upside.
If I'm Spoelstra?
I go with Napier. He played four years in college and you just drafted him in the first round because you thought he represented an upgrade and he does. Chalmers is a valuable role player who can contribute at both backcourt positions, and Cole shouldn't be anything more than a specialist who plays sparingly.
It's Shabazz time.