If one ever wondered what an example of fight, a picture of determination or a testament to the virtue of hard work looked like, people on the Trail Blazers will point you to the locker of point guard Shabazz Napier.
“I don’t know how you would put it, or what the politically correct way to phrase it is, but … Shabazz is a dog,’’ guard Pat Connaughton said. “He fights. All the time.’’
Added captain Damian Lillard: “He’s an every-day guy. That’s 100 percent a fact.’’
It is that fight, and that relentless work ethic that is at the center of one of the developing trends on the Blazers in the past week: the emergence of Napier in the regular rotation.
In the last three games, Napier has played 20, 20 and 15 minutes, marking the first time in his two seasons in Portland that he has played 15 minutes or more in three consecutive games.
“He’s had three good games in a row,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Getting him on the court, in various capacities, is something that will probably continue.’’
He has earned the minutes through practice, where Lillard says Napier is “a handful to go against,” and by way of his performance when called upon. Against Memphis, he went 5-for-8 and scored 12 points, and against Brooklyn he went 5-for-7 for 11 points.
Then Monday against Denver, he had eight points and three assists, and helped direct a rarity in the Lillard-McCollum era – a six-and-a-half minute shift where neither star was on the court – during which Napier and the Blazers increased the lead from two to 12.
But while his teammates see his dogged practice approach, and fans see his ready-when-called-upon game performance, it has been something behind the scenes that drives Napier.
It’s a single voice, from back in his youth.
“My mother instilled this quote in me,’’ Napier said. “She said, ‘The easiest thing you can do in life is quit.’ That has stayed with me since I was young. I never wanted to be a quitter. I always wanted to win.’’
After he was the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, not much has gone Napier’s way.
He started seven straight games his rookie season with Miami after Dwyane Wade pulled his hamstring, but by the end of the season he was out of the rotation, needed a sports hernia surgery and was eventually traded to Orlando for a late-second round pick.
He never found a role in Orlando and after one season was traded to Portland for cash, where he found himself behind Lillard and McCollum, two rising stars in the backcourt who average around 35 minutes a game. His prospects for playing time didn’t improve when the team also signed Evan Turner, a play-making point-forward.
“My NBA career hasn’t panned out like I wanted it to,’’ Napier said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to quit.’’
It’s probably too early to say if Napier has secured a set-in-stone role on this Blazers team, but as the team tries to find its early-season footing, Stotts hasn’t been shy in turning to Napier to gain some traction.
On Monday against Denver, the second unit with Napier, Connaughton, Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis was instrumental in the comfortable 99-82 win over the Nuggets.
That included a seven-minute stretch to start the second quarter, when neither Lillard nor McCollum played, which Lillard figured was the longest time he has ever sat during a second quarter. It was also the first time in the past three seasons that Stotts has strayed from his security blanket of having either Lillard or McCollum on the court during a competitive game.
“It was something I actually toyed with going into the season … I wanted to give it a look,’’ Stotts said. “It worked out well tonight and we’ll see how it goes going forward.’’
If Napier and Turner become a reliable ball-handling duo, it could ease some of the wear-and-tear that Lillard and McCollum endure over a season. Last year, Lillard (36.2 minutes) ranked 9th in the NBA in minutes while McCollum (35.8) ranked 11th.
“He can do a lot of things, and he can definitely bring something to the game to give us a break,’’ Lillard said.
Part of Stotts’ willingness to experiment with the non-Dame-CJ lineup could be attributed to Napier’s steadiness. In 101 minutes this season, Napier has just two turnovers. Meanwhile, he is shooting 60 percent from the field (18-of-30) and has made 5-of-9 from three-point range.
“He’s in a tough position, because Dame and CJ play such heavy minutes,’’ Davis said. “But I think he should be in the rotation. He has proven that and given us a spark.’’
Napier would rather that spark turn into a fire, but in the meantime, he figures he will stick to his mom’s quote from his youth.
“I’m a competitor, and everyone wants to play. But this is not my first rodeo,'' Napier said. "This is my fourth year and it’s been like this the entire time, so I just keep working, keep pushing, and never lay on my laurels. I understand that if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. I just have to be ready for it.’’