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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Role models along way helped propel Shabazz Napier to Blazers point guard

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Shabazz Napier has become a key rotation player in Portland's backcourt, supplementing stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.For a young man whose biological father has not played a role in his life, Shabazz Napier has benefited from a number of males who have served as mentors along the way.

It's a likely reason why the 26-year-old point guard with the Trail Blazers seems so together as a person, so composed as a player, so undeterred by setbacks along the way.

Shabazz has met Boris Napier, but was raised by his mother, Puerto Rican native Carmen Valesquez, along with a pair of siblings in a single-parent family on Boston's south side.

"My father wasn't in my life as much as I wanted him to be," Shabazz says. "But I've always felt like whether you have a father or not, it teaches you something. It taught me how to become a man. How to understand life from a different aspect. And how to value family."

Valesquez and her children lived in the Mission Hills projects in the Roxbury area of the city. Napier refers to it as "the brick buildings."

"I don't like to call it the 'projects,'" he says. "That's a derogatory name. Not too many people have a lot of money in the brick buildings."

Napier's mother was in and out of work as a domestic helper.

"It was difficult for her," he says. "We weren't financially stable. It helped me understand at a very young age how material items don't mean much.

"Growing up, I knew a lot of folks who had nice things but had nothing to land on. It's not about your clothes or having the nicest car. It's about the value you have with your family and the time you spend with them. Life is the most precious thing in the world. Sometimes we don't comprehend that."

During his elementary-school years, Napier came upon the first of his role models, a high school basketball star named Will Blalock. Blalock, eight years Napier's senior, was a 6-1 guard who wound up playing at Iowa State and spent eight years in the professional ranks, including a 14-game stint with the Detroit Pistons.

There were four or five other older boys and young men who helped Napier during that period of his life, with Blalock foremost among them.

"I call him my older brother," Napier says. "He has taught me a lot. Watching him and being around him, I understood the true meaning of being a professional.

"It wasn't just basketball. I didn't have that much of a father in my life. I was always looking for a father figure. At a young age, I was asking him to do it. He did a great job."

For three years during Napier's childhood, he lived with Blalock and his family.

"And when he went to college, I still lived with his mother for a spell," Napier says. "It was for no other reason than to help out my family's situation. In the black community, we stick together. When times are tough, we can always help somebody. I was very fortunate that they took me in."

Blalock, 34, remains in Napier's life.

"We talk all the time," Napier says.

During his formative years, the 6-foot Napier turned to basketball as an escape. He was small — 5-6 when he entered high school, 5-10 when he graduated — but managed to catch the eye of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun during the summer before his junior year of high school.

"Funny thing was, first time he came to watch me, I played so bad," Napier says. "I shot a 3 to impress him and airballed it. I thought, 'There goes my chance.'"

Napier had a storied career at UConn, helping the Huskies win 104 games over a four-year span. As a freshman in 2010-11, he served as backup to Kemba Walker on an NCAA championship team.

"Kemba was a mentor that year, being able to learn under him," Napier says. "If I didn't know what it meant to be a professional, I knew after watching him every day in practice and in games. It taught me that hard work overcomes anything. I live my the motto, 'Hard work is undefeated.'"

Three years later, Napier bookended his college career with another NCAA title in 2013-14, this time under Calhoun's successor, Kevin Ollie.

Napier took home more hardware than an Ace repair man that season. He was a first-team All-American, the Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of both the East Regional and the Final Four, leading the Huskies to a 60-54 win over Kentucky in the final. Napier also won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top point guard.

Napier, who averaged 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting .405 from the 3-point line, deflects compliments for his performance that season to his supporting cast.

"A lot of it goes back on my teammates," he says. "They understood what I learned from Kemba.

"Sometimes you don't need all the rewards every single game. Some games, I'd score four or six points against a team I knew we could beat, but I'd set the tone and get the other guys to go off. That boosts their confidence. When I needed them most, they'd feel confident about who they were. It was a cumulative effect with every single guy who played for us that year. Everybody believed in themselves."

Napier departed UConn with a degree in sociology.

"That was one of the biggest things I've done in my entire life," he says. "I'm the first to get a four-year degree. My mother wanted it so bad. It was a great day for my family. I remember every single part of the graduation ceremony more than I can remember the national championship game my senior year."

Napier had another great moment in the weeks after the national championship game. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

"I still have the baseball," he says. "We (the Red Sox) lost that game bad, but it was just great to do that. I never thought I would get that kind of opportunity. I threw a change-up, maybe 16 miles per hour."

So Napier is a Red Sox fan? What about the other Boston teams?

"No choice but to root for all of the above," he says. "I'm a big Patriots fan. Fun to watch the greatest quarterback ever (Tom Brady)."

Miami made Napier the 24th pick of the 2014 NBA draft after a draft-night trade with Charlotte. It was a more down than up rookie season. He started 10 games and averaged 5.1 points and 2.5 assists in 51 games, a season shortened by surgery for a sports hernia. Napier also played four games for Sioux Falls Skyforce of the D-League.

With Miami, Napier was introduced to another mentor — forward Chris Bosh.

"The best vet I ever had," Napier says. "He taught me so much on and off the court. He got me into reading before games, reading books that I didn't have to read.

"I was a sponge around him. I've always wanted to learn from great players. I was fortunate to have him and Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem in Miami. Chris always told me no matter what was going on, don't stay high or low. Stay even-keel and understand that the path of life is never straight. It's always up and down."

The Heat surprised Napier by trading him to Orlando in the offseason for a conditional second-round pick and cash considerations. He averaged 3.7 points and 1.8 assists in 55 games with the Magic during the 2015-16 season, then was given up for a song again — cash considerations — to Portland after the season.

Napier was in and out of the rotation with the Blazers last season, playing in 53 games with 28 DNP-CDs (did not play/coach's decision). But with playoff positioning decided, Coach Terry Stotts started him the final two games of the regular season. Napier responded by scoring 32 points with six rebounds and five assists in a 99-98 win over the Spurs on April 10, then scoring 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting in a loss to New Orleans.

"Games like that at the end of the season are difficult to evaluate," Stotts said. "But for those guys who don't get a chance to play much in the regular season, you want them to do well, because it's a chance to shine. 'Bazz' ran the team, he scored ... I was happy for him — a young player, still trying to make a name, to have a career. It was great to have people see that he can play."

After the season, Napier headed straight to Orange County to work out with his trainer, Paul Fabritz. He stayed there until a return to Portland in August.

Napier scored 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting — 2 for 2 from 3-point range — in 23 minutes in a win at Phoenix in the season opener. He then played a total of 23 minutes in Portland's next nine games, including four DNP-CDs.

Stotts used Napier for 20 minutes in a Nov. 7 loss to Memphis, and he has been a member of the rotation since, averaging 9.5 points in 21.5 minutes in the 13 games leading to Tuesday's game against Washington.

Napier's shooting fell off in the five games before the Wizards contest — 7 for 29 from the field, 2 for 12 from 3-point range — but Stotts has kept him in the rotation, citing his playmaking ability. The coach has used him at times in a three-guard lineup that includes Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

"I don't like to define a player's performance by how many points he scores or how he shoots," Stotts says. "The three-guard lineup has been very effective — of any three-man group that has played significant minutes together, it's been our best. They've complemented each other well. It's been a good lineup for us.

"'Bazz' is very professional. He is confident in his ability, but understands his role on the team. That role can fluctuate from not playing to being part of the rotation. He is always prepared. When I put him in a game, he is ready to play. If he doesn't play, he is still prepared to play."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Trail Blazers guard Shabazz Napier gives Portland coach Terry Stotts options to use a small lineup.Napier is grateful for his first extended time in a rotation in the NBA.

"I didn't think I'd been given a real opportunity to showcase what I can do, but I'm not going to stop pushing myself to be better," he says. "Now I am getting an opportunity to play. It's great to feel like you have somebody other than yourself who believes in you.

"In Miami, the team was going through a lot of changes with LeBron (James) leaving. I never really got a chance in Orlando at all."

Lillard was born on July 15, 1990. Napier was born on July 14, 1991. That's just one of the pair's similarities. After the Blazers acquired Napier in June 2016, they worked out together the rest of the summer, first in Las Vegas, then in Portland. Lillard became Napier's latest mentor.

"'Dame' and I bonded real fast," Napier says. "It's because we're so much alike. We both always had a chip on our shoulders. We always had many folks who don't believe in us.

"He sees that in me. I go to him many times to talk about things outside of basketball. It's great to have someone in that position who understands the hard times and the beauty of coming out of the concrete."

Says Lillard: "He's a real team player. He cares a lot. He has a mental toughness. He's a big-time player. He brings that confidence. That's the thing I like about 'Bazz' most. He's very sure of himself."

Napier has grown comfortable with Portland, a community he considers not all that much different from either Boston or Storrs, Connecticut.

"The only real difference is it snows in New England; it rains a lot here," Napier says. "Portland is known for being weird, which is a little like Storrs. The people are just the same. We have such a rabid fan base here. We felt like superstars in Storrs, too."

Napier hasn't experienced much of Oregon, though, because he is a homebody who likes to stay close to his digs in Lake Oswego. His longtime girlfriend, Marriah Michel, is a food blogger (madebymarriah.com) who takes care of his culinary needs.

"My lady is a real good chef," he says. "She is Italian, and I love Italian food, but she's very creative."

When he's not eating, Napier is playing with his 14-month-old American bulldog/pit bull mix, Nore ("Norry"). "He's a big boy — 100 pounds, super energetic," Napier says.

Napier has his first TV commercial, stumping for Stumptown Coffee's new "Blazers Blend."

"Great people over there," he says, "and a funny commercial."

Napier's mother came out for a 2 1/2-month visit early in the season.

"I stay close with my mom," he says. "She brought me into this world. We have a great relationship. I was a mother's boy growing up.

"I resemble my mother in so many ways. I can't be too far away from her. She knows how I feel. I know how she feels. I'm like my mother's child."

Napier knows he could fall out of Stotts' rotation at any time. It has been his lot in life since he came into the NBA.

"It's not something I'm worried about," Napier says. "I understand coach (Stotts) has a job to do, to try to win games. We have a lot of good players at every position.

"I just have to try to go out there and continue to find my rhythm. You have to understand there is always another guy who can come in and do the job. It's something I've been dealing with for a while. I hate dealing with it, but I have to."

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