This was supposed to be a very different season for Shabazz Napier and the Miami Heat.
The connection between the two began in April with an unsolicited compliment from the best player in basketball. And while Miami's move to acquire Napier in a draft-day trade was seen as an important effort to placate LeBron James, the University of Connecticut point guard was just supposed to be a role player on a perpetual championship contender.
Months later, the title hopes aren't as strong but the growth of Napier and his team seem inextricably linked. A new era has begun for both and it might be more prosperous than either had expected.
The timing, as has always been the case in Napier's life, couldn't be any better.
Forced to watch from the sidelines, Napier waited for his moment to join the others on the court and prove that he belonged.
He was a common sight at local basketball tournaments in Roxbury, an inner-city neighborhood outside Boston. Players at these exhibitions ranged in ability but flashed what skills they had and Napier, sponge-like, soaked it all in. He confidently looked forward to breaks in play to show the large crowds that gathered to watch these young men put on a show that he had what it took to be out there, too.
He wasn't even 10 years old.
Napier was passionate about basketball, even at that early age. His mother, Carmen Velazquez, had enrolled him in a mentoring program at the local YMCA called "No Books No Ball." As per the program's website, the goal was to help "student athletes develop high self esteem (sic), confidence and a greater appreciation for the importance of education in achieving the American dream."
Despite Napier's self-assured attitude, the program was far from a complete success.
Napier's family life was an unstable one. Velazquez, a single-mother of three, had a hard time making ends meet and his father was sadly out of the picture. Predictably, Napier found comfort in the structured calm that only basketball provided.
As Napier's talents continued to develop on the court, he struggled academically despite being, as one of his early coaches described, a "pretty smart kid."
After three years at Boston's Charlestown High School, Napier was in danger of failing to academically qualify for college. One of his mentors, Oscar Lopez, recognized that the young man's potential simply couldn't be wasted.
Lopez reached out to local prep schools and enrolled Napier at Lawrence Academy in rural Groton, Massachusetts. As Kevin Wiercinski, Napier's coach at Lawrence, told Tim Casey of Sports on Earth, "I think he understood that he needed to be about more than just a sweet crossover dribble and an awesome jumper."
Back on track for his senior year, Napier started to generate interest from some of the top collegiate programs in his home state. But fate intervened yet again during a recruiting trip to an AAU tournament by Connecticut's Jim Calhoun in Orlando, Florida.
According to Casey, Calhoun "walked by a court and noticed ‘Boston' on a team's uniform." The Hall-of-Fame coach was from the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and, "even though he had a list of players he wanted to see and none of them were playing," he stayed to watch an intriguing young point guard.
Swayed by a shared "aggressive demeanor," Napier joined Cahloun's University of Connecticut Huskies in 2010.
Kevin Ollie was in his first year as an assistant coach at Connecticut in 2010. The Huskies has a talented group that was led by Kemba Walker, an All-American that would go on to a NBA career with Charlotte. When Ollie first saw Napier giving "shooting and passing tips to Walker," Ollie said to himself, "Who's this little kid out here directing Kemba?"
Most incoming freshmen would have seen Walker on the UConn roster and looked elsewhere. But Napier, the consummate leader, didn't see an obstacle so much as a challenge to continue improving.
In fact, it was Walker, the junior, who looked to Napier as a reason for his success saying:
"[Napier is] definitely the reason why I kind of excelled, especially against other players, because we went after it in practice so much. He's very good defensively. He definitely challenged me a lot."
The Huskies would win the title during Napier's freshman year but the program would suffer some setbacks over the next few years. Calhoun would leave the program amidst controversy over academic qualifications. After 26 years at the program's helm, he left behind a tarnished legacy and the school was banned from participating in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Ollie, an unproven coach, would take over. Other heralded recruits would transfer to other schools or seek early entry into the NBA.
Napier chose to stay and bid his time.
The decision to remain at school, as he explained to CNN's Rachel Nichols, was to fulfill a promise to Velazquez to graduate with a college degree. "The least I can do is keep my promise to my mom, make my mom happy. After all she's been through, if that's going to make her happy, I'm going to fight for that."
That kept promise led to more success for Napier and, now firmly in charge of the Huskies, he led the team to another championship in 2014. His maturity and willingness to take - and ability to make - big shots was the ultimate difference between his upstart team and a more-heralded Kentucky class that was filled with NBA prospects.
The diminutive Napier easily stood out and James, who prides himself for his ability to recognize talent, took notice.
The former Heat superstar made an off-the-cuff remark that Napier should be the first point guard taken in the 2014 NBA draft. Professional players make comments like this frequently they're usually dismissed.
When it comes from James, however, it definitely elicits a reaction.
Some considered it hyperbole, just another opinion that, like the old expression goes, everybody has. Others considered it an early sign that James had designs on shaping a team more to his liking. The Heat front office listened and, sure enough, pulled the trigger on a draft day trade that brought Napier to Miami.
The move was highly scrutinized and for good reason. Miami wanted to keep James happy and, if selecting Napier accomplished that, all the better. Of course, a July 11 announcement that James, the ersatz general manager/coach, would go to Cleveland made the discussion a moot point and a potentially embarrassing one for the Heat.
Critics would look to team president Pat Riley's failure to appropriately gauge the feelings of James and point to the acquisition of Napier as a failed attempt to woo the Akron native.
In truth, the point guard was a position of need. Two of the three guards from last year's rotation were free agents. Attempts to lure other big names like Kyle Lowry or even Jameer Nelson had failed. Norris Cole, the only player left on a roster that needed overhauling, might not be ready for the limelight.
In hindsight, trading for Napier might be the best result from the awkward, painful departure of James, one that sent the team spiraling and in need of a new identity.
Rarely has a rookie player sparked the imaginations of the Heat fanbase as much as Napier has during this season.
It's a 20-year hangover from drinking the Riley Kool-Aid about rookies and unproven players. He's rarely believed in what they can do and Miami fans have adjusted accordingly. While other teams are "built, not bought," the Heat live and die by the free agency sword; they rarely place their faith in players fresh out of the collegiate ranks.
Of course, there was Dwyane Wade in 2003, a player who floated position-less during his rookie year, one in which Riley left the coaching reins to longtime-assistant Stan Van Gundy. The season was, effectively, a wash in the eyes of many fans. Longtime Heat supporters still look to that team's unexpected playoff runs as one of the most rewarding in team history.
The Michael Beasley era (Part I, of course) left a bad taste, one that was sweet with potential and bitter from failing to achieve it.
Enter Napier who, despite his former coach's claims, has easily become a favorite in Miami because of his "crossover dribble and awesome jumper." But there's more to it, the deeper layers that have been missing from the point guard position since the Tim Hardaway era. Something in the way that Napier makes that extra pass that leads to the extra pass that leads to the made jumpshot. Or how he barks out commands on the hardwood floor, reminiscent of how he ordered the older Walker around despite his proven status.
There's a feeling that Napier simply gets it, a vague compliment that can be supported by his effective field-goal percentage and the faith that head coach Erik Spoelstra has shown by leaving him on the floor during clutch moments of tight games. This isn't a knock on Cole, a hardworking player that is beloved in South Florida but, due to an impending contract issue, might be on his way out of Miami. Nor is it an insult to Mario Chalmers, the deposed starter over the last six years that has thrived this season as the sixth man or, in Wade's absence, as the starting shooting guard.
In fact, the combination of Chalmers and Napier has been one of the most exciting of this short season, where Napier's maturity and leadership complement Chalmers' (over)confidence. They both do much of the same thing - handle the ball well, shoot from the perimeter - but Napier does it within the context of each possession while Mario...well, does it with more unpredictable panache.
Napier has gone from being the box of chocolates offered shyly to James over the summer to being a potential team cornerstone for years to come. Just as he waited along the sidelines of his hometown tournaments or deferred to Walker in Connecticut, Napier has managed to take a potentially bad situation and make it a beneficial one.
Heat fans were expecting something different out of this season but Napier has fit in perfectly as part of this transformative season in team history. Finding the right sense of timing - for that big shot or perfect pass - is sometimes the perfect blend of hard work and luck.
Shabazz Napier just happens to successfully combine both.