Becoming The Man at UConn
Through the first month+ of the college basketball season, the Connecticut Huskies are off to a nice start. They have lost a couple, but battled in games against highly ranked opponents. They also have a number of quality wins already on their resume. Of course, their season RPI or strength of schedule does not ultimately matter, as they are banned from postseason play this year; and they are severely outmanned on the inside in most contests. However, what is happening in Storrs, CT is still rather remarkable. Led by Shabazz Napier, the Huskies are playing like the Oklahoma City Thunder if Kevin Durant retired. Allow me to explain…
In the 2012 offseason, because of an upcoming postseason ban, many of the stars of the Huskies decided to leave school early or transfer. One of these stars was Jeremy Lamb. A fluid and effortless scorer, Lamb was able to get his own shot whenever and wherever he wanted as a collegian. The only thing holding him back in college appeared to be his teammate, Shabazz Napier. As point guard, Napier often controlled the ball and the offense, leaving Lamb almost singularly dependant on him for his scoring. There were games where Napier took too many contested shots, dribbled too much and left Lamb to become an afterthought. Jeremy’s quiet demeanor only aided this relationship, as he never seemed to demand the ball or try to force the offense through himself. Connecticut’s best player and scorer, Lamb, was being overshadowed and almost kept under wraps by his less talented but more driven teammate (Check out a previous article on this relationship "Alpha Dog Problems at UConn"). Remind you of anyone?
Before going any further, let me throw in the all-important caveat that Kevin Durant is a much better player than Jeremy Lamb was and is. Also, Russell Westbrook is a much better player than Shabazz Napier is. Okay? Okay. The analogy still fits as the situations mirror themselves almost perfectly.
Now fast forward to 2012-2013. Lamb is out, Napier has come back to take the reins of the program. He will be asked to score and shoot even more this season without such a talented teammate on his wing. Through the first fifth or so of this season, that is exactly what has happened, with results eerily similar to production from one Russell Westbrook. As of December 8 Napier is shooting 42% from the floor, while having increased his shot attempts about 20% from last season. He is shooting more threes, making a few ticks under 40% of them. His free throw attempts have also gone up and he is scoring more than ever, tallying over 17 points per game. Now, compare that to Russell Westbrook’s game. The Oklahoma City guard is also shooting 42% from the floor. His threes are also at a career high, while shooting a few ticks under 40%. The players’ blocks and steals numbers are quite similar as well. Napier turns the ball over much less often while Westbrook accumulates a lot more assists but, as I said, Westbrook is a better player and also the NBA is a different game; the parallels are not perfect.
Nevertheless, imagine what the OKC Thunder would look like if Kevin Durant retired. Westbrook would become the dominating force on that team, shooting more and scoring more than anybody else. No longer with the “burden” of having to pass to Durant, Westbrook’s attempts and free throws would increase, as would his scoring. The Thunder, as a team, would probably be worse off for it as well. This is exactly what has happened to the UConn Huskies. Shabazz Napier is dominating every aspect of this team and it simply isn’t enough.
Who knows how the Huskies’ season is going to progress from here. Also, the team decline is certainly not all because of Jeremy Lamb leaving for the NBA. However, with Big East conference play still on the horizon and the team relying on Napier to a fault for any consistent scoring, red flags are raised, hot start be damned.
This is not a perfect equivalent. But perhaps it gives us NBA onlookers just a glimpse of what may happen if Russell Westbrook were ever to take over the alpha dog duties of OKC. And, in UConn’s case, it should give a lot more than just a glimpse into how special Jeremy Lamb was and conceivably open up the opinion that Napier was slightly responsible for Lamb not even being as good as he could have been. It’s not easy being The man even if it seems fun to always shoot.