The UConn Huskies have been one of the most successful teams in college basketball over the last 20 years, and they have become one of the premier programs in the country. The team has produced numerous NBA players, won three national championships and seen head coach Jim Calhoun inducted into the Hall of Fame. Needless to say, the Huskies have had their share of legendary and popular players, and perhaps no one in program history is more beloved than Kemba Walker.
During the 2010-11 season, Walker was the driving force for the most surprising of UConn’s three national championships. Following a regular season that saw the Huskies finish a disappointing 21-9 overall and 9-9 in Big East play, Walker placed the Huskies on his back and led one of the most incredible runs in college basketball history. The Huskies won five games in five days to win the gauntlet that was the Big East Tournament, then ripped off six more wins to win the NCAA Tournament and their third national championship.
Shabazz Napier was a freshman on that team, and he was Walker’s backup and apprentice. Now a senior, Napier is the unquestioned leader and best player on the Huskies, and he is drawing more than a few comparisons to his mentor. Walker averaged 23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.5 APG and 1.9 SPG while shooting 42.8% from the field and 33.0% from three in his final season in Storrs. Eight games into his senior year, Napier is currently averaging 16.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 5.6 APG and 1.9 SPG while shooting 50.6% from the field and 60.0% from three. He also has the Huskies at 8-0 and ranked No. 12 (and rising) in the country.
Obviously Napier’s shooting percentages and rebounding numbers will come back down to earth as the season goes on, but it is very fair to say that he is playing at the same level Walker did. He also shares Walker’s penchant for knocking down clutch shots, as evidenced by a four point play followed by a game winning buzzer beater against No. 15 Florida on Monday. Napier and Walker are both ultra-quick guards who can get to the rim at will, yet remain solid passers and shooters. Each player is also a defensive terror for opposing point guards. They even have the same infectious energy and leadership skills.
After the game Napier was asked about Walker, and he gave the politically correct answer, saying “Those are big shoes to fill. I’m just trying to be myself.” Well, Shabazz, you’re doing a pretty impressive job of filling those shoes so far. Obviously there is a long way to go in this season, and Walker is a legend because of that national championship. However, Napier is one of the stars of the young season, and he has the ability to lead this team very far in the NCAA Tournament. If he can continue to play the way he is, the comparisons to Walker will continue, and that is just about the highest praise as you can get around UConn.