The mysterious case of Shabazz Napier

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2022-01-14 07:50
Credit: BasketNews/D.Repečka
Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

Arguably the most exciting EuroLeague rookie that didn't play a single game this season. He was supposed to miss 3-6 weeks, but it's been almost 4 months since he last appeared on the floor. Shabazz Napier's return after an ankle injury became a mystery.

Points this season

Points made: 73,8
Accuracy: 46,2%
Place in standings: 13
Record max: 90
Record min: 58
Best scorer: Jordan Loyd

BasketNews followed the timeline of Napier's return and the reasons behind his absence.

The VTB League Super Cup final upset on September 19 was the slightest problem for Zenit St. Petersburg and Xavi Pascual.

Napier joined Zenit to replace All-EuroLeague Team member Kevin Pangos, but injured his ankle 30 seconds into the game and never returned to stop CSKA Moscow from taking the title.

"Napier has a rather serious injury to the ligaments of the right ankle joint. On the positive side, I can say that there is no fracture and, therefore, there is no need for surgery," Zenit GM Alexander Tserkovny said on September 20. "One of the minuses is that the recovery time is still unknown. We have everything that's needed to get him back on the floor quickly."

It was a massive blow for Xavi Pascual, who was on a mission to repeat an ambitious playoffs journey of the 2020-21 season.

"He's 50% of this team," one source close to the situation told BasketNews.

Napier's importance in St. Petersburg was unquestionable. Napier dropped 33 points to beat UNICS Kazan in the Super Cup semifinal the night before the unlucky injury.

After the second straight victory in Kaunas, Pascual revealed Napier was not that far from a comeback.

"We don't know exactly, but we have to wait at least two more weeks," the coach said on October 7. "We want him to recover as soon as possible. But we want him to recover 100%."

Early in November, Tserkovny explained that rehab after such injuries takes from 3 to 6 weeks in most cases.

"I hope that in November we will see him in the game," Tserkovny said on November 4 to Sports Express.

However, Zenit kept playing without their main floor general. On December 13, Tserkovny had to admit that his rehab took longer than expected.

"Our main point guard Napier is still undergoing rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the terms of his recovery turned out to be much longer than previously predicted", Tserkovny said to an official website.

Napier left for the US to welcome his son to a new world. He rejoined the group before the New Year. On January 13, Tserkovny told that Napier is finally expected to return to the court pretty soon.

"We expect that in two or three days, he will start training with the main team, and it will become clear when we see him on the court," Sport-Express quotes Tserkovny.

Talking on the Area52 podcast, Pascual set a more conservative timeline for Napier's return.

"If everything is okay, I hope that at least at the beginning of February, he will be with the team," Pascual said on the podcast.

Wrong player's approach? Early treatment mistakes? Or just some bad luck? That all could impact the fact that Napier's ankle injury sidelined him for almost four months instead of 3 to 6 weeks.

Surprisingly, Zenit hit the top four playing without their primary point guard. 

The backup point guard Conner Frankamp and shooters Jordan Loyd, Billy Baron, and even Mateusz Ponitka shared point guard duties.

Baron put the EuroLeague on fire, making 4.3 three-pointers per night (on 56.7% shooting) in the last four games. But until Round 14, his 3-point accuracy was only 27%. In his two previous seasons, Baron was above 40% 3-point shooter.

To no surprise, Zenit currently stand 12th in an offensive rating. Last year, Pascual set up the 3rd best offense in the EuroLeague.

Napier was absent for so long, but Zenit kept winning, so many forgot the importance of point guards in Xavi's schemes. The Spaniard is basically missing the All-Euroleague Team member, which makes Pascual's success with Zenit just another example of his masterclass.

Tyson Carter recently joined the squad, but it's too early to expect a significant impact from a hungry 23-year-old scorer.

"Napier can give us transition in offense and creation, also, better control of the game. If you followed my career, it's the first year my team has had so many turnovers (14.9 APG, 13.6 TO). Usually, all my teams take care of the ball," Xavi Pascual told on Area52. "If we want to do something else in the second round, we have to improve in our transition offense and turnovers."

UNICS, Anadolu Efes, Olympiacos, and AX Armani Exchange were among the Top 8 victims on Zenit's way.

Just imagine when Xavi will have Napier on board and shooters will return to their usual positions.

But that's the mystery that has to be solved first with finally bringing Napier back on track.

I wonder, how you've count, that Zenit was 3rd in offense last season. 11 PPG in regular, 8th (last) in post-season. 9th and 5th respectively in assist. What do you mean?
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Shabazz Napier

Shabazz  Napier
Team: Zenit Saint Petersburg
Position: PG
Age: 30
Height: 185 cm
Weight: 82 kg
Birth place: United States of America