- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shabazz Napier turned the ball over on his first possession and launched an airball on one of his final shots during his first game as an NBA point guard.
Those kind of miscues can only mean one thing: The Miami Heat’s first-round draft pick is right on track in the early stages of his transition to the league. Struggling in a summer league debut has become a rite of passage for point guards getting their first taste of NBA action.
Napier, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player who had LeBron James’ stamp of approval when he was drafted in the first round last month, missed his first 10 shots and had eight turnovers Saturday in Miami’s 85-77 loss to the Boston Celtics at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
But a productive spurt in the fourth quarter during a rally that fell short left Napier embracing the growing pains and eager to quickly adjust in time for his next summer league test Sunday.
“I definitely needed this one to understand the game much better,” Napier said of Saturday’s performance. “It’s a big adjustment. I’m unable to do a lot of things I was on the college level. I’ve got to find the adjustments on how to do those things. I’ve still got the college game coming in. We’re learning on the fly, and we’re going to make big mistakes. This is a different game.”
But the humbling start makes Napier no different than plenty of other point guards who stumbled along their initial steps into the league. This time a year ago, Michael Carter-Williams shot 27 percent from the field in Orlando, had games with nine and eight turnovers, respectively, and he never found a rhythm despite putting up solid overall scoring numbers.
The Sixers point guard ended up being named NBA Rookie of the Year last season.
There are similar stories of early struggles dating back to Derrick Rose’s NBA summer league opening act in 2008. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Napier’s approach to this process was revealed after Saturday’s game when he was asked how much he either watched or knew about the early growing pains some top college point guards had in their initial week of summer schooling.
Napier, who never shied away from controversial statements during his time at UConn about the NCAA’s governing guidelines, offered a dish better than either of the two he had in Saturday’s game.
“I didn’t watch it at all,” Napier said of tracking previous summer league seasons. “I never had NBA TV, especially at school. If a lot of point guards do this, then I guess it’s a remedy. But it’s a big learning curve for all of us. So you’ve got to find a way. I will as soon as I continue to play.”
Repetition is certain to be a remedy, too.
Napier was targeted by the Heat for several reasons. Chief among them was that LeBron likes him and considered the shifty, sharp-shooting, two-time NCAA champion as the best point guard in the draft. Another reason was that Napier plays a position of potential need for the Heat, who saw 14 of the 15 players on last season’s roster become free agents this summer.
It’s made for a hectic and desperate month of July already, with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still yet to publicly commit to re-signing with the Heat since entering free agency last week. There has been a steady dose of conflicting reports about the intentions of the Heat’s Big Three, from some outlets speculating that all three players are likely to return, to others reporting that LeBron and Bosh are now apparently open to exploring how they might fit with other teams.
Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have been traveling the country the past few days meeting with potential free-agent targets, including Luol Deng and Pau Gasol, in an effort to retool the roster in anticipation of LeBron, Wade and Bosh returning.
Amid that backdrop, the Heat are hoping to develop and prepare a handful of prospects on the summer league team who might be able to contribute to next season’s roster. In addition to Napier, Miami is hopeful that swingman James Ennis, a second-round pick last season, and holdover center Justin Hamilton can add a “layer of youth” to the team Riley mentioned was needed moving forward.
Ennis led the Heat with 18 points and eight rebounds, showing both the athleticism around the rim and the shooting distance from 3-point range Miami needs to replace aging veterans from last season’s team that was overrun by San Antonio in five games during the NBA Finals. Hamilton missed nine of 15 shots, but he had 13 points and nine rebounds Saturday against Boston’s young prospects.
Heat assistant Dan Craig, who is coaching the summer league team, said Napier’s uneven play was more a result of his inability to adjust to the pace of the NBA game -– even at the scaled-down summer level.
“At times, I thought he sped himself up,” Craig said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. Slow down, let the defense make the mistake. As he settled in, I think he did a good job of adjusting. Obviously, we’re still learning each other. If he makes a mistake, he goes on to the next play. I think he got in trouble more than they got him in trouble. And that’s just about slowing down.”
Among the dozens of former players, league executives and team scouts who watched Napier in action at the Orlando Magic’s practice facility was someone who knows quite a bit about a point guard’s transition from leading a team to an NCAA title to getting prepared in a hurry for the NBA.
Isiah Thomas, who guided Indiana to a championship in 1981 and then entered the draft three months later, smiled and nodded his approval as he spoke with ESPN.com Saturday about Napier.
“The thing I like about him most is that he competes. And not only does he compete, he’s smart and has a great fundamental base you can build from,” Thomas said. “He understands offensive concepts and defensive concepts. I’m not concerned about what his field goal percentage was today, or any of that.”
Thomas, a Hall of Fame point guard who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons, said Napier has the intangibles and instincts necessary to work through many of the initial adjustments required to be an impact point guard in the NBA. Thomas pointed to a stretch in the fourth quarter, when Napier made three straight shots, got a steal and sparked a comeback in a key stage of the game.
“They had a stretch there when he really got it going,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV. “The thing that is impressive is that he can have those type of bursts in a game, when he can hit a couple of shots, get a couple of steals and change the whole momentum of the game. It didn’t matter to him what he was shooting before that moment. He’s able to grasp that, and that’s a big thing at this level.”
Ennis, who played for the Heat’s summer league team last year, said he spoke with Napier about not allowing a slow start or bad game to linger. The week is far too short for any of that.
“I told him, ‘This is your first time here. Last year, I was very nervous,’” Ennis said. “I know he got drafted in first round, so a lot of people expect a lot of him. Next game, he’ll be better. Just get the jitters out.”
That process for Napier started with the first play of the game. He brought the ball up in transition and tossed a lazy pass across the court and knew it was a mistake the moment it left his hand. The turnover led to a Celtics fast break.
“I passed it, and I didn’t know I threw a loose pass,” Napier said. “I thought I threw a regular pass. That’s one of the things I’ve got to learn. Throw a pass that has a chance of getting there. As soon as I threw it, I said, ‘There it is, get back on defense.’”
A good sign is that Napier didn’t get defensive about his miscues.
He dissected them. He accepted them.
His plan was to spend the evening in his room watching film and refocusing for Sunday’s game.
“I can come in here and not be prepared, or I can come in here and be prepared,” Napier said. “And I like being prepared for everything.”
Everything, including a long and productive NBA career at the point.
After seeing Napier on Saturday take his first step -- and a few missteps, as well -- Thomas likes his chances.