Few point guards in New England made as big a name for themselves in the high school season last winter than Lawrence Academy’s Shabazz Napier. The Mission Hill resident wielded his NBA-like range and flair for the creative in leading the Spartans to an undefeated season, capped with a NEPSAC Class C championship last March.
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Napier committed to UConn shortly after the season, and then signed his National Letter of Intent in April. Ever since, he’s been in the gym getting ready for the high expectations and physical cauldron of Big East basketball. ESPNBoston caught up with Napier last weekend at Roxbury’s Madison Park High, where he was helping run the Athletes United for Change Basketball Clinic, to talk about his current workout regimen, his upcoming first season in Storrs, and his taste for old school R&B.
Q: What have you been working on this summer to get ready for UConn?
A: "Just been playing basketball every day. I’m in the weight room every day, been doing two-a-day’s with my teammates when I’m up at UConn. Back here in Boston, I’m just doing one (per day), but for two hours, starting at 3 o’clock over at the Huntington YMCA. That’s basically what I’ve been doing, working out with my older brother, doing everything I can to get ready for the season."
Q: What are you working on in particular to prepare yourself for the physicality of the Big East ?
A: "To me, it’s all mental. I feel as though you don’t have to be the strongest player out there, you’ve just got to have a great IQ. For example, Allen Iverson was someone who wasn’t that strong, was small, but he was just quick and elusive. That’s what I bring to the table. I’m just trying to add on a little more meat, so I can get by the bumps and bruises and be effective in each and every game that I can be."
Q: By the end of the season, your playmaking ability as a point guard looked pretty intuitive. How do you go about developing something like that?
A: "I don’t even know (laughs). It’s just, you’ve got to know who you have around you. It’s more of knowing that you don’t always have to take over a game. Like for example, in my championship game (LA beat St. Mark’s, 54-43, in the NEPSAC Class C final last March), I knew I didn’t need to take over a game, didn’t need to shoot the ball most of the time. So instead, what I did…the defense was trying to clamp down on my offensive ability, so I became more of a playmaker – which I can be, but I think I’m two-dimensional. I can score, and I can pass the ball, so my IQ is to a point where I can do a lot of things at one time. I think my playmaking ability has always been there, it’s just I use it whenever the opportunity is needed, and I’m looking forward to using it during the season to help us win games."
Q: How many shots are you taking in a day right now, and what’s the routine?
A: "I take 500 in my first workout, and in my second workout I take about 300 to 350. I take mostly mid-range shots, because I know for a fact that I’ve got a good three-point shot. I mean, my mid-range is good, it’s just I don’t usually take mid-ranges – I’m not saying there’s no need for mid-ranges, just my thing is all about three-pointers and shooting off the dribble, shooting off the catch, making one move, finishing strong. Right now, I’m working on my floater, I’m just working on making it easier for my team and my teammates, because if I get in the lane, it’s going to be easier for my teammates to get open.
"Everyone’s going to crash down on me, and I’m going to pass it back out. I think that’s the easiest way to score, when you go in and bring it back out, so that’s going to be easier for me and my teammates, if I could knock down a 15-foot shot then it’s going to be easier for our big men to score."
Q: What’s motivating you the most headed into your first season at UConn?
A: "That’s a good question, because there’s a lot (laughs). Just the anticipation, that’s one of them. My biggest thing is being a so-called ‘surprise player’. Most reporters basically describe me as someone who will surprise people. All my life, you could basically say I was a surprise player, because I was never given an easy opportunity to make the best of things. That motivates me, because I’m coming in with little respect from others, and I’m ready to make something of that, and get on the right foot so me and my teammates can get out and show what we’ve got coming for them."
Q: What’s on your iPod?
A: "As of right now, I listen to Wiz Khalifa, but most of the time I’m listening to slow songs. I like old school songs, like Dru Hill, Silk, Blackstreet, Keith Sweat. I’m not into the new R&B, I don’t like listening to it because it’s all explicit and rated-R. I’d rather listen to something that’s soothing, something I can mellow to, stuff like that. I listen to Marvin Gaye, Gerry Levert, stuff I feel is great songs to me and to the old folks too."
Q: Where did you hone your skills growing up?
A: "I grew up in the Mission Hill projects in Roxbury. I didn’t have a father, so I ended up staying with…he’s not really my brother, but I consider him my older brother, Will Blalock. I was the youngest of three kids, and my mother raised us on her own, sometimes with one job, sometimes with no job. It was tough, so I tried to make it easier for her by staying in the arms of someone who cares about me and is going to make me a better basketball player. I learned my skills basically from him, watching him play, watching my other older brothers play, learning from them. They had great IQ’s, they know how to play the game real well, and it was just a pleasure to learn from them. I had a group of guys I consider brothers who just took me underneath their arms…Will Blalock, Steve Hailey, Tony Lee, Will Dickerson, Shawn Davis, Kenneth Jackson. They’ve been big mentors."
Q: If I’m in Roxbury and I want to find the best game, which court do I go to?
A: "As of right now, it’s going to be hard. Boston basketball hasn’t been where it should be at. Not everybody’s big into playing basketball anymore, they’re trashing it. When I started playing basketball, it was all about playing basketball. Then when I got into high school, it’s still about basketball but not as much. Now, it’s turned more into advertisement, someone who watches something and then wants to be that person. It’s basically degraded. Where I grew up playing basketball was Washington Park, on Malcolm X Boulevard. That’s where you could really find older cats playing basketball, and also going hard on the gridiron."