There are players that the UConn basketball team is built on.
There are great players on the wall of honor at Gampel Pavilion with Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler Emekea Okafor and Kemba Walker and others having left their mark.
UConn was built on these players' backs. That's who Shabazz Napier was coming to play with. Sure, those players were long gone by the time he arrived in Storrs years ago, but when you play at UConn you are always playing against those ghosts.
Napier had as much competition on the court as he did off it, as fans and media relentlessly compared him to the past. How does Napier compare to Chris Smith? How about Kevin Ollie? Ricky Moore or Khalid El-Amin?
How about Taliek Brown, Marcus Williams, A.J. Price and the famed Walker?
That's been Napier's competition and after four years the one truth we've found out is this -- He belongs.
Napier may not have built the program for the Huskies, but he helped save it. In many ways, with negativity everywhere, that was harder to do.
Napier will play the final game of his college career at Gampel on Wednesday when the No. 19 Huskies play Rutgers at 7 p.m.
“His name will be following Khalid’s soon up in the rafters,” Ollie said of the Huskies of Honor program. “And he deserves all the accolades he’s gotten. He’s been a tremendous person on and off the basketball court.”
Napier, who is a favorite for first team All-American and in contention for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has had a stellar senior season leading the Huskies in points (17.8), rebounds (6.o) and assists (5.3) and has UConn on the verge of an NCAA berth.
Napier is the only player in school history with more than 1,700 points, 600 assists and has two triple-doubles. He is a candidate for the John Wooden Award, Oscar Robertson Award and Bob Cousy Award.
But, Napier's contributions for the Huskies go beyond that.
Coming off a national championship in 2011, the Huskies had a disastrous 2011-12 season. A team with Napier, Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, Ryan Boatright and Alex Oriakhi somehow, barely, won 20 games and was embarrassed in the NCAA's by Iowa State. It remains arguably the most underachieving team in UConn history considering the talent level.
The NCAA hammer came down and the Huskies were out of the NCAA's the following year. Jim Calhoun would retire that fall and the mass exodus of transfers and NBA entrants was non-stop -- Drummond, Lamb, Oriakhi and Smith -- decimating the roster.
In many ways, Napier was the reason for that season. A sophomore point guard taking over for Walker, Napier just didn't handle the leadership role well-enough and the chemistry never clicked. No one would have blamed Napier if he saw the writing on the wall and left.
"The reason why I felt like I stayed, I felt like that sophomore year I didn’t play as well as I could," Napier said. "I told Coach Calhoun that I was going to stay and I was going to help him, show them what we got for the last ride or whatever it was for him. Because there were a lot of rumors going around.”
Napier came back his junior year, under the radar, and put together an incredible campaign. Napier led the Huskies to 20 wins in a season where many foresaw a below .500 record. UConn didn't play any postseason games, but Napier played well enough to inject life into the program and get Ollie's tenure as coach off to a good start.
If his sophomore year was adversity, his junior year was spent making a climb for one final run at it.
“It’s how life is,” Napier said. “There’s a lot of obstacles in life to get to where you want to be to be successful.”
“There’s a lot of rivers, a lot of mountains you have to pass,” Napier said.
Napier's helping UConn climb the mountain this season. He's followed that up with an All-American caliber season for the Huskies, who are 23-6 and 11-5 in the AAC. Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey, are the final holdovers from the NCAA title team with Walker. UConn's last NCAA win was the 53-41 win over Butler in the national title game. That seems like a long time ago, but it's been quick.
“Being here four years, it seems like time has been moving too fast. Now you’re a senior and it’s the last time you can play in front of these fans at Gampel," Napier said. "It’s a tremendous feeling unless you get to play here, actually play for UConn. It’s something super special. It’s kind of like utopia."
Napier, one day, is going to have his name up on the Huskies of Honor wall.
People will remember the big shots and big stats and his being a member of the national championship team.
That's only part of what he did at UConn. Napier was the player who helped bridge UConn from Calhoun to Ollie and saw the program through the postseason ban. He was the face of the program through some of its most difficult times.
When everyone else jumped off the ship, Napier stuck around and helped keep it going in Storrs.
Whatever the Huskies do in the postseason the next month, Napier's legacy is secure.