Shabazz Napier has been a crucial part of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ recent success, and his defense has been significantly better than expected.
There were doubts about his offensive versatility, his defensive consistency, and just his general ability to help a team succeed. Those concerns were intensified as the season began.
Through the first third of the season, Napier was bad. It was clear he hadn’t developed any chemistry with his new teammates and still needed to get comfortable with his role in the rotation. Then, there was the nagging hamstring injury that knocked him out for a stretch of games.
Through Dec. 14, Napier had an offensive rating of 96.9, a defensive rating of 102, and a net rating of -5.1, per NBA Stats. In Layman’s Terms, he stunk. Just to add some reference, his offensive rating was similar to Denzel Valentine and his net rating was similar to Jordan Clarkson.
Put simply, the Timberwolves struggled immensely when Napier was on the floor.
Thankfully, Napier’s performance has had a change of tune since the aforementioned Dec. 14 cutoff. Since Dec. 14, Napier has had an offensive rating of 102.9, a defensive rating of 97.7, and a net rating of 5.2.
Positive production out of the point guard role for the Timberwolves over the last few years has been like Will Smith’s movie career.: one night you get hyped up on Bad Boys and then the next you’re slogging through a hundred minutes of After Earth.
Despite my early season objections and hesitations to be hurt again, I do think that this recent form of Napier is not just a trend, but a sign of what the rest of the season could bring.
While Napier has been solid offensively since Dec. 14 (14.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game), the biggest reason for my optimism has been Napier’s defense. Among guards who have a consistent role, Napier has the sixth-best defensive rating on the season of 99.8. Yes, individual offensive/defensive rating numbers are generally a reflection of the team when that player is on the floor (still a good sign for Napier), but his other numbers are strong as well.
Per Synergy, Napier is allowing just .885 points per possession (PPP) this year, good for the 62nd percentile. This is better than the likes of Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton. Most of Napier’s success has come when he’s had to fight through screens.
He does a great job of avoiding the screen and staying with his man. When Napier defends the ball handler in the pick-and-roll he only allows .778 PPP (83rd percentile) when the ball handler dribbles into the screen and only .353 PPP (98th percentile) during handoffs.
Napier has been one of the best guards in the league this year at getting steals. According to Cleaning the Glass, Napier has a steal percentage of 2.3 percent, which is in the 88th percentile among guards. As we can see in the below clips, Napier creates a lot of turnovers when he is run through a screen.
Here we see a great example of Napier’s defensive awareness and ability to disrupt passing lanes. As Napier’s man sets a backscreen on Robert Covington, Napier immediately recognizes that Covington won’t be able to get through in time. The two communicate a switch which allows Napier to stay on the sharpshooting, Joe Harris.
The switch was just half the battle though as Napier then needs to avoid a well-placed screen by Jarrett Allen. Napier stays on Harris until the last second and then right before Napier gets to the screen he cuts up the court to avoid the screen, deflect the pass, and force the turnover.
This play is all about timing and the route that Napier takes to defend Harris. If Napier continues to track Harris on the same path, he would have gotten taken out by Allen’s screen and given up an open three. Conversely, if he would have cut up court too early, Harris would have been able to drift into the corner for an open three instead. By timing his move perfectly, Napier put himself in a good position to force the turnover.
Like the previous clip, here we see great timing and positioning by Napier again. He initially does a great job of cutting off Gary Harris’s drive and forcing the ball from his hands. Harris then looks for the handoff with Nikola Jokic.
As Harris goes to retrieve the ball, Napier recognizes some space between Harris and Jokic. Napier beats Jokic to the spot, which is crucial. This forces Harris to dribble into the screen where the prodding hands of Josh Okogie and the length of Gorgui Dieng await. Then Harris dribbles back towards his left where Napier is eagerly waiting to relieve him of his burden.
The key to this steal was Napier’s ability to beat Jokic to the spot and avoid the screen. If Napier would have gone under, Harris would have been able to pull up for an open shot or reuse the screen and dribble back towards his left for an easy jumper. Instead, Napier’s recognition and execution forced Harris into the off-ball defenders and a swarm of hands he couldn’t escape.
Shabazz Napier’s defense has been extremely important for the Timberwolves’ recent turnaround. He puts himself in a great position to succeed and exerts more effort than we’ve seen since the Rubio era. He avoids screens to force turnovers and contest shots. On top of that, he plays great team defense by funneling his man into awaiting teammates and making/communicating well-timed switches.
Going forward, Napier should continue to see an important role in the rotation. A major part of playing good defense is effort. If he continues to play at this level, the Timberwolves’ recent defensive success won’t be just a blip on the radar.