By John Vogl
Shabazz Napier leads Connecticut in every way possible, both on and off the court. Kevin Ollie would be lying if he said he saw that coming.
“I ain’t going to lie,” the coach said. “There was a couple days that I was like, ‘No, it ain’t ever going to happen.’”
Napier was a rebel when he arrived as a freshman in 2010-11. Kemba Walker was the big man on campus then. Though Walker led the Huskies to the national championship, he still had to battle the new guard on the team.
“When I first started working him out, he was telling Kemba what to do,” said Ollie, who was an assistant coach then. “I was like, ‘What’s this little freshman telling Kemba where to shoot at?’ He was seeing how he was leading, but he still had a little rebellion in him a little bit, wanted to do it his own way.
“But he understood you’re not going to change UConn. UConn is going to change you. He started to conform to that, and now you see him grow into a great, amazing leader. You see everybody following him.”
Napier may have an NBA future ahead of him, but he’s a rarity in that he could go pro while staying in school for four years. The college life allowed him to grow from the wild kid to the mature Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference. He'll try to become a Sweet 16 player tonight when UConn faces Villanova in First Niagara Center.
“At the end of the day, you get to play the game you love for so many years, and that’s it,” the 22-year-old said. “My mother always told me, ‘One thing no one can take from you is your education.’ I took that to heart.
“I feel as a four-year player you learn a lot, a lot of things that you may not get the chance to learn on the next level. You may not develop as much as you need to develop. A lot of kids struggle with understanding that.
“I just feel like basketball-wise there’s always room for improvement. Outside of basketball, you get a free scholarship to this university. You’ve got to take advantage of that.”