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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Kevin Duffy: With Napier and other guards, it's production vs. promise

Updated 8:57 pm, Wednesday, June 25, 2014
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You will hear Shabazz Napier's name called Thursday night on ESPN, the culmination of the ultimate, most unpredictable college basketball journey.

You'll also hear Zach LaVine and Elfrid Payton, two names you haven't heard until -- what? -- six words ago? A primer: One scored eight points in three NCAA tournament games; the other played for Louisiana-Lafayette and shot 26 percent on 3-pointers.

And you'll likely hear those names before you hear Napier's, which seems about as outrageous as the national championship he lifted UConn to in April.

Shabazz Napier is as gutsy a college hoops gamer as I've ever seen. He buried more dagger jumpers than anyone in program history, then came back for his senior year and lapped himself in the clutch record books. In that one season, he made more clutch shots than Zach LaVine made any shots, yet he universally sits below the UCLA freshman on draft boards.

The input of one Western Conference front office staffer: "The main difference here is physical profile and age. LaVine is a long 6-foot-5 with incredible athleticism and an effortless, if not inconsistent, shooting stroke. Napier is small and not physically imposing. He doesn't test (well) athletically; although I think he's quick and tough. ... He's also a college senior."

So which would you take in the late lottery?

"It depends what you want to build your team," he said. "Sometimes upside outweighs risk. I don't necessarily agree."

This is a pure guessing game, even for the most educated basketball minds. Nobody bats 1.000 in the NBA Draft. Everybody is scared to miss a transcendent star because the league is built on transcendent individual talent, and only the few teams with transcendent individual talent already in place seem comfortable selecting production over promise.

Miami certainly is one. So it should come as no surprise that the Heat, sitting at No. 26, is reportedly looking to move up for Napier. Also, it shouldn't be a surprise if four or five point guards -- Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, LaVine, Payton and Tyler Ennis -- are already gone when Napier is taken.

Napier told reporters Wednesday, "I definitely feel I was the best guard in all of my workouts."

Production.

LaVine could be the next Russell Westbrook or he could be the next Russell Athletic apparel salesman. He can scrape his head on the rim, and also his butt on the bench. He reached double-figures in only four of his final 18 games during his lone season as a Bruin.

Promise.

It's a classic debate, Production versus Promise, and Napier and LaVine offer the extremes of both.

History offers some riveting examples but no clear answers: In 2007, Golden State selected North Carolina freshman forward Brandan Wright eighth overall. He was sensationally athletic and long. He's never averaged double figures. With the next pick, Chicago took two-time NCAA champion Joakim Noah.

In 2005, the Knicks opted for Arizona's All-American senior center Channing Frye at No. 8. Freakish big man Andrew Bynum, a UConn commit, went No. 10 to the Lakers. He grew into a franchise center for two championship teams.

There was a string of proven senior point guards selected in 2003: UNLV's Marcus Banks, Louisville's Reece Gaines and Boston College's Troy Bell went Nos. 13, 14, and 16. Combined they scored 2,195 career NBA points. The next guard taken, super-athletic and raw 20-year-old Leandro Barbosa, has scored almost 8,000.

In that same draft, the T'Wolves took a flier on high-flying 6-foot-9 high school small forward Ndudi Ebi. The next swingman off the board? Wake Forest senior Josh Howard, a pivotal starter and one-time All-Star for the Mavs.

There's a case every year, and in this draft, there's a particularly fascinating case among the point guards projected in the late lottery to early 20s.

Senior point guards drafted in the teens and 20s, Napier's inevitable destination, don't have killer track records. Yes, we're talking about long-term contributors like Jameer Nelson, Jamaal Tinsley and Darren Collison, but we're also talking about Eric Maynor and Juan Dixon and Mateen Cleaves and Acie Law. Remember them? NCAA legends. Pro castoffs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there isn't much history for college guards who averaged less than 10 points. Jrue Holiday averaged 8.5 in one season for UCLA; he's now an NBA All-Star scoring double. Daequan Cook posted 9.8 as a freshman at Ohio State, which is better than he did in any of his six NBA seasons.

We can look at trends, and rest assured that every NBA team will, but we can't fit every player into a convenient box. There's something unique about each of the guards available in the late lottery.

And Napier had perhaps the most unique career in college basketball history. He won two insane national titles. The most talented team he ever played on, the one with Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, was the worst in his four years. And then everyone disbanded, Drummond was drafted ninth on potential alone (aside: how does Sacramento feel about taking proven veteran Thomas Robinson ahead of Drummond?) and Napier regrouped UConn for an amazing two-year run.

Yet he's projected behind a pair of point guards you've never heard of in Connecticut. If it seems crazy, that's because it's the NBA Draft, and everything in the NBA Draft is crazy. It's a terrific night for fans, but it must drive GMs nuts.

There's evidence to support that, and not much else.

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy