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Napier's improved play in Summer League raises hope for his future in Miami

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The second-year guard made a compelling case to stay with Miami after a solid stretch of play in the Summer League but will it be enough?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James' favorite player of the 2014 NBA Draft has had his fair share of ups and downs in his brief pro career.

After the Miami Heat traded up to acquire the rights to Shabazz Napier, the 6-foot-1 point guard struggled mightily in his first Summer League experience, shooting less than 20 percent from beyond the arc and totaling more turnovers than assists. A solid start in preseason, highlighted by a 25-point outing against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs among four consecutive games scoring in double-figures, gave hope that Napier could be the team's point guard of the future.

Then the games began to matter and Napier continued his up-and-down pattern, scoring in double-figures through six straight games in November and displaying overall improvement in his game while battling for minutes with Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole but then regressing the very next month. Two stints in the NBA D-League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce didn't do much for his confidence and with Cole sent packing and Goran Dragic arriving later in the season, minutes were hard to come by for the rookie.

A sport hernia injury cut his season short by a month, though it had been affecting his play much earlier than that, and subsequent rumors of the Heat trying to unload him for tax relief purposes soon appeared, but publicly his coach appeared to be content with his development the past year.

"Shabazz was able to play basically two college seasons in his rookie season," Erik Spoelstra said after the regular season ended. "So what were the expectations from the outside? I don't know because my expectations for him were just to learn our level of commitment, of work ethic, of player development, and to learn the NBA in one of the most challenging positions and he did that."

His injury continued to slow him down in the offseason and prevented him from participating at the start of the Orlando Summer League. However, his first appearance in Miami's fourth game of the tournament gave hope this was truly a fresh start for Napier. He recorded 14 points and six assists in 17 minutes in a win against the Los Angeles Clippers and followed that up with an impressive run in Las Vegas.

Though Napier's shot continues to be a work in progress -- he averaged almost 40 percent through his four Summer League games -- he showed much more confidence penetrating and finishing at the rim along with improved decision making and court awareness to help get his teammates involved.

"When I'm trying to find creases and I'm able to get there, the maturation of my game is starting to (help me) learn what I'm going to do there," Napier said last week in Las Vegas. "I'm just trying to get myself in areas in the game that allow me to learn from it and try to get myself a basket or for my teammates."

While he had seven turnovers in his final game against the Atlanta Hawks, he had just three combined in his first three games despite being the team's primary ball-handler. Encouragingly, he displayed much more quickness on the court as his minutes steadily increased that suggested he was finally able to put his injury behind him.

"Of course I'm not happy about the turnovers or the missed free throws," he said. "But at the end of the day I was able to get myself to where I wanted to go. I just wasn't able to knock it down (but) every day has got to be a progression."

Describing his evolution from his first Summer League to his second, Napier insisted the goal remained the same regardless of the year of NBA experience under his belt.

"It's the same mentality, to just continue to learn from my first to second one on what I can improve on," he said. "Get myself in situations where I might be in the game and just try to learn from it, whether I make a mistake or I don't."

Still, the lessons learned from that inconsistent first season has given him plenty to work with as a point guard trying to adapt his game at the NBA level.

"The experience always does that to a player," he said. "You learn by watching a lot of film and I noticed things that I should have done better. The game definitely slows down just because it gives you some time to analyze your mistakes."

Perhaps the time off the court to fully heal what was nagging him for months was what Napier needed to help refine his game and focus on what he does best.

"I got a lot of time off,"  he said. "My surgery happened in April so just taking my time and understanding that with injuries I have to be safe with it. I don't want to re-injure something and I don't want to hurt something again. Just taking my time and just going through the process and trying to get back healthy."

Summer League coach Dan Craig was pleased with Napier's noticeable improvement overall and in his attack mentality.

"He's been great in terms of getting into the paint, paint touches, and he got to the free throw line," he said last week. "That's what we want out of him -- a high motor, how many times can he get into the paint and make plays for us."

Though the level of competition is obviously much lower in Summer League, the experience surely gave Napier confidence he can earn minutes on a deeper roster this upcoming season. There remains a chance he may not stick around, even if his rookie deal represents a minimal savings in tax penalties for the team compared to Chalmers' much larger contract, but there just may be a place on the team for a pure point guard that can back up Dragic and help push the pace. Chalmers and second round pick Josh Richardson are capable ball handlers but are combo guards. Then again there are only so many roster spots to go around.

For now, Napier can only focus on improving his game and prepare for his second NBA season playing the game his way.

"I'm going to be myself and continue to grow," he said. "They have a great group of guys and a great roster but you don't want to play out of your character. I'm just going to continue to grow and just be myself.

"I'm going to continue doing what's best for the team, whether that's distributing the ball, play defense, or getting up some good shots. At the end of the day, that's what I'm going to try to do."