MINNEAPOLIS — Most athletes can’t choose where they’re traded, but Shabazz Napier couldn’t have identified a much better situation in which to land.
Dealt from Brooklyn in the sign-and-trade deal that brought Kevin Durant to the Nets and sent D’Angelo Russell to Golden State, Napier was a cap casualty whose NBA contract simply needed a landing spot.
Minnesota stepped up. The Timberwolves took on the one year remaining on the deals of Napier and Treveon Graham, two more pieces that fit perfectly into their summer of acquiring low-cost, low-risk contracts.
But Napier fits in at Minnesota for more reasons than that. After the Wolves let restricted free agent Tyus Jones walk to Memphis, Napier is now Minnesota’s de facto backup point guard.
He’s almost certainly going to be a prominent member of the Wolves’ rotation.
So, he was asked at this week’s introductory press conference, are you excited to play?
“I’m excited to prove,” Napier responded.
Prove what he can do, not just to everyone else, but to himself — again. It’s what the 28-year-old point guard has spent the past two years doing, establishing himself as an NBA-quality floor general, resurrecting his career after a rough start.
After a sterling college career at Connecticut that featured two national title runs — the last of which Napier led — the point guard was selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 2014 by Charlotte, then dealt to Miami. Napier was a favorite of LeBron James — how’s that for pressure? — and acquiring the point guard was part of the Heat’s unsuccessful pitch to keep the King in South Beach.
Napier played rotation minutes in Miami that first season, but didn’t perform well. He was then dealt to Orlando, in exchange for a conditional second-round draft pick, and eventually relegated to the end of the bench in the second half of the season. His confidence was at an all-time low.
“Coming into the league, you get a lot of hype. Not playing well, then going to the Orlando Magic and not playing at all, it was tough,” Napier said.
Growing up in the Mission Hill community of Boston, Napier said you have to be mentality tough — “super tough.” He carried that mentality with him throughout his basketball career.
But, early in his NBA career, he lost that.
“I lost who I was,” Napier said. “I didn’t feel like I was meant to be in the NBA.”
For the second straight offseason, Napier was traded, this time for cash considerations. His new home was Portland, a saving grace of sorts for his career.
“I always tell my family members and my friends, I needed to be in Portland at that time,” he said.
He needed to be part of an all-word back court that featured the likes of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Napier joined that dynamic duo for pre-practice workouts and competed with and alongside some of the game’s best every single day.
“It showed me a lot of things,” Napier said.
Chief among those — that Napier was “worth the battle” that is the NBA grind.
“That’s all that mattered to me, that day,” Napier said. “My whole thing was coming in that day and providing what I could provide, and each and every day, getting better, getting stronger and stronger, and I was able to do that.”
And the results showed. In his second season in Portland, Napier played 20 minutes a game, averaging 8.7 points and two assists for a playoff team. He signed with Brooklyn last offseason, and was again solid this past season playing alongside the likes of Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie.
Now in Minnesota, Napier is presented with a great opportunity. Not only is he the Wolves’ No. 2 point guard, but he’s surrounded by familiar faces. Wolves assistant coach David Vanterpool was in Portland with Napier, and assistant coach Pablo Prigioni was in Brooklyn last season. He even went through a pre-draft workout with head coach Ryan Saunders back in 2014. Saunders said he admires Napier’s “competitive fire” and “winning mentality.”
“I’ve had great relationships with those guys,” Napier said.
And, of the four other players Minnesota introduced at this week’s news conference, Napier has played with three of them in the past — Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh and Treveon Graham.
It has all the makings to be a good fit.
“I think who I am as a person, it’s going to fit perfectly,” Napier said. “I’m excited to be here. Whether it was trade or whether I signed, this is a place I want to be.”