The mere mention of the name brings a smile to Shabazz Napier's face.
Kemba Walker, he says, is his big brother and basketball mentor. During their lone season as teammates at Connecticut, Napier shadowed Walker and took mental notes on an array of subjects, from performing in the waning moments of a close game to rallying his teammates in practice.
Napier was Walker's understudy during UConn's national title run in the 2010-11 season. Walker is now a budding NBA star with the Charlotte Bobcats and Napier is doing his best impersonation of his friend, leading UConn to an unexpected NCAA Final Four berth.
Walker is hanging on every game as he watches his alma mater and his protege.
On Sunday, Walker sent this message from his Twitter account: "Best PG in the country. Shabazz Napier."
Of course, Walker is admittedly biased. After all, the profile picture on his Twitter page is of Walker embracing former UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
But school loyalty aside, Walker has been impressed by Napier.
"He makes all the best plays at the end of the game," Walker said. "That's what separates him from a lot of the other players around the country. That's something you can't teach, man. That's something you have to be born with, in my opinion. He's always had that ability. Now he's able to show it."
The narrative that's been written this spring is that Walker was the teacher and Napier the student during the 2010-11 season. That's mostly true, but Walker reminds people that Napier was hardly an overwhelmed, wide-eyed teenager as a freshman.
Napier averaged 7.8 points and 3.0 assists while playing an average of 23.8 minutes. He scored 23 points in one game and 18 in two others.
"When he was with us, he made some pretty big shots, he made some pretty big plays," Walker said. "Not only offensively, but defensively. … He's always been able to score, but he didn't have to when I was there. He's just putting it all together right now."
In four NCAA tournament games this year, Napier is averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists. In 2010-11, through the first four tournament games, Walker averaged 26.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists.
Walker said Napier always exuded confidence, but he was humble enough to ask questions and defer to more experienced players. Napier said it wasn't easy taking the torch from Walker and it took a few years before he truly felt like the leader of his team.
Napier said last weekend that he finds himself hearkening back to what he learned from Walker — spreading the ball around, being vocal on and off the court, including all of the players in whatever the team is doing.
"I do think he learned a lot from me," Walker said. "I'm happy that he did. I'm happy that he wasn't the kind of kid that came in and stands there and thinks he knows everything. … He was always willing to learn and he was always trying to get better."
Former coach Calhoun, speaking on the Madison Square Garden court after UConn's victory over Michigan State on Sunday, put Napier in the same class as Walker. Napier always had a quiet confidence, Calhoun said, even when he was in Walker's shadow.
"He had that incredible, incredible belief in himself," Calhoun said. "Incredibly bright, incredible kid. His swagger, his positive arrogance about how good we are … translates to every guy on this team.
"Shabazz is one of the great players in college basketball in the past 10 or 12 years. I haven't seen many kids like him."
Walker said he's proud of UConn's lineage of great point guards. He learned lessons from A.J. Price that he passed on to Napier.
Among the notable alumni at Madison Square Garden on Sunday were Khalid El-Amin and Taliek Brown, two of the better point guards in program history. Brown stood in the locker room amid the postgame celebration, marveling at UConn's run and Napier's ascension on the list of UConn point guards.
"I think he's up there.... He's top three," Brown said. "He's got a great IQ. He knows the game. He knows how to stop, go, change directions. He's got a jump shot. He can basically do everything you need your point guard to do."
Brown said Napier's freshman season with Walker was instrumental in his development.
"That year definitely helped him," Brown said. "And his whole four years, he's gotten better every year."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times