Shabazz Napier thriving in return to Nets' rotation

Napier has been an undisputed positive and earned crunch-time minutes
Coming off the bench in Memphis, Shabazz Napier helped the Nets close out the Grizzlies. (AP)

Injuries take a toll on every team in the NBA, and what can often separate each squad is how they deal with the shakeup. The Nets have found their footing this season despite potential pitfalls around each corner with different players stepping up.

For Brooklyn, one can look beyond Caris LeVert's injury to see how roles have shifted all season long, particularly in the point guard rotation. With LeVert out, D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie were cemented as the lead guards, Russell working with the starters and Dinwiddie with the bench. The duo remain interchangeable, playing with every man in the rotation at one time or another. More often than not, it's those two closing games.

However, they're not the only noteworthy point guards on the roster, thanks to the presence of Shabazz Napier. The Connecticut product is just 27 years old, yet he's the fifth-oldest player on the Nets, and he plays like the veteran Brooklyn needs him to be. 

That's in part because he knows how to handle sitting on the bench and waiting his turn. Napier bounced around three different teams in his first three years before finding a role in Portland and thriving. While no NBA players wants a DNP or just 15-20 minutes a game, the best role players find ways to adjust. Last year, he became a combo guard of sorts, playing off both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and still fitting in.

For all of November with Brooklyn, Napier was that third guard. He'd even get to be the only point guard on the court in certain lineups. Through Dec. 3, he'd played in 22 of the Nets' 26 games, though the team had fallen off during the last few contests. 

With the team healthy outside of LeVert and rookie Rodions Kurucs emerging, Napier saw his rotation spot evaporate just as the Nets went on their seven-game winning streak. The 6-foot-1 guard played just 18 total minutes over an 11-game stretch in December with seven DNP-CDs. 

So when he bounced right back to a key bench role in the wake of Allen Crabbe and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's injuries, it may have come as a surprise to some. Yet over the last five contests, he's had his best stretch of the season.

Napier posted a career-high 32 points to go with seven assists against Milwaukee on Dec. 29 and scored in double figures in five straight contests. Furthermore, the Nets outscored opponents by 38 points with him on the court in that span despite the team having just a +7 scoring differential.

What makes this success more impressive is how he fits in alongside Dinwiddie and Russell. The Nets are able to roll out any combination of the three, using one of them off the ball. Coach Kenny Atkinson has even rolled with all three of them for brief stretches, and it's seemingly worked.

It's rare to see a player go from that many DNPs to crunch-time minutes (not to mention such consistent scoring), but that's precisely what's happened for Napier. He was the key decoy on the game-sealing basket by Dinwiddie in Memphis and helped cut Milwaukee's lead into single digits in the fourth quarter a couple weeks ago. The 27-year-old played almost the entire fourth quarter in Chicago on Sunday night to help close the game while working alongside a resurgent Russell.

Hollis-Jefferson should be back soon and Crabbe is a few weeks away. Treveon Graham has returned to full health. LeVert's return looms on the horizon. If the Nets reach or near full health, Napier may see his role cut or reduced again.

However, based on the results of the last two weeks, it's clear he'll be ready to step up for Brooklyn whenever his name is called next.