Brooklyn Nets: Shabazz Napier seizes opportunity

Brooklyn Nets Shabazz Napier. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Shabazz Napier. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After being removed from the Brooklyn Nets rotation earlier this month, Shabazz Napier got a chance Saturday and took full advantage of it.

Shabazz Napier stayed patient and stayed ready. Having been removed from the Brooklyn Nets rotation in early December, the fifth-year combo guard didn’t lose focus and waited for his next opportunity.

Napier had played in just four games and logged 29 minutes during the Nets’ hottest stretch of the season, an 11-game stretch during which Brooklyn went 9-2 and had a seven-game winning streak to match the longest of the franchise’s Brooklyn era.

He got a chance to provide a spark in Friday night’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets, playing 11 minutes in the second half and dropping in 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting.

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On Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks, the opportunity he had been waiting for presented itself and Napier took full advantage.

With starting point guard D’Angelo Russell being rested on the second half of a road back-to-back, Napier moved into the backup role behind Spencer Dinwiddie and capitalized — in a big way.

Napier played a season-high 33 minutes off the bench, matching his career-high with 32 points and dishing out a season-high seven assists in Brooklyn’s 129-115 loss to the Bucks.

The 6-foot-1 guard was the driving force behind a massive push by a group of Nets reserves that cut a 26-point Milwaukee lead to just seven in the fourth quarter before the Bucks, behind eight straight points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, finally put the Nets away.

Napier knocked down 9-for-15 shots overall, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range, and his fearless drives into the paint led to 12 free-throw attempts — also a career-high — of which he sank 10.

It was the 10th time in 27 games played this season that Napier has scored in double-digits, but he blew away his previous season-high of 18 points set in the double-overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 30.

His 33 minutes represented more time than he had played in Brooklyn’s last 12 games combined (28) and was his longest stint since logging 36 minutes in a rare start with the Portland Trail Blazers against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 12.

Napier has been productive when called upon this season, averaging 8.1 points in 14.9 minutes per game on 41.3 percent shooting overall and a 39.4 percent clip from deep.

He is still much more scorer than facilitator and has been since he led the University of Connecticut to a national title as a senior in 2014, but he has been steadily getting more adept at adapting his game to Brooklyn’s pace-and-space system predicated on rapid ball movement.

The seven assists on Saturday were two off his career-high of nine set early in his second NBA season, while with the Orlando Magic.

Brooklyn’s loss on Saturday marked the club’s first consecutive defeats since their eight-game losing skid from Nov. 21-Dec. 5 and dropped the Nets to 17-21 on the season.

But one thing the Nets have shown they have in much greater quantity than in the last three seasons is quality depth.

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Napier’s performance Saturday after spending the better part of three weeks gathering dust on the bench is just another sign of how much is different in Brooklyn this season, where “next man up” is more than just an empty slogan for a change.