Napier is honored as the AAC's best player

UConn guard Shabazz Napier speaks while accepting the inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award Wednesday at Memphis, Tenn.
UConn guard Shabazz Napier speaks while accepting the inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award Wednesday at Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis, Tenn. — Shabazz Napier commanded the stage on Wednesday, just as he's done throughout his outstanding senior season.

Napier put his heart and soul into his American Athletic Conference player of the year award acceptance speech, thanking everyone from his teammates and coaching staff to the team trainer and managers.

"I am truly happy and humble about this award," Napier said. "But I do wish I was able to break this award down into 15 pieces because without my guys, I'm nothing."

He saved his most heartfelt remarks for his mother, Carmen Velasquez, who sat in the crowd at the Gibson Guitar Factory banquet room, the site of the AAC awards ceremony.

"I definitely want to thank my mother for all the sacrifices she made to better my life," Napier said. "As a single mother with three children growing up in the inner city, she had all the excuses and reasons to give up, but never did."

"Even through all the tough times, she always gave us the best day to look forward to. For me to even be in this position as a student-athlete at the University of Connecticut, it's a true tribute to who she is and how she raised me."

It's the eighth time that a Husky has won a conference player of the year and first since Hasheem Thabeet received the prize in 2009. Other previous winners - all during the Big East days - include Emeka Okafor (2004), Caron Butler (2002), Richard Hamilton (1998, 1999), Ray Allen (1996) and Donyell Marshall (1994).

"That's definitely a special place to be in with all the great players that came before me," Napier said.

Napier was informed of the news on Sunday and basically took it in stride. Then he had to keep it a secret from everyone, including his mother.

"I was just surprised," Napier said. "Coach (Kevin) Ollie called me and I was just waking up. … I told him, `that's nice.' He was like, `man, show some excitement.' "

It's been a memorable season for Napier, who's on track to become the first UConn player to lead the team in scoring (17.8 points), rebounding (6.0) and assists (5.2). He's also first in steals (1.8), free throw shooting percentage (87.7) and minutes played (34.8).

He's also a respected team leader, a big shot maker and a tireless worker.

"His intangibles speak for themselves," Ollie said. "It's the things that you don't see a lot that make him the player that he is and the person that he is. You see how eloquently he spoke up there. That's just who he is."

"… Nobody saw him getting up in the morning working out with the soccer team last year in the summer time. It's just amazing the things that y'all probably don't see that we see on a day-to-day basis. It's not like he's running around parading it.

"This is what he does. He believes in himself and he believes that hard work will eventually pay off and I'm glad it did for him to get this award and for him to be recognized as the top player in our conference."

In a tight player of the year race, Napier beat Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith, who both led their respective teams to a share of the league title.

Not everyone was happy with the selection. In his coach of the year speech, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin mentioned Kilpatrick, "his player of the year."

Kilpatrick, who led the conference in scoring and received the sportsmanship award Wednesday, also was clearly bothered by the choice.

"Of course, there's some type of disappointment," Kilpatrick said. "You've just got to use it as motivation to keep going. … It's going to be 20 times worse for a lot of people now."

Other AAC award winners included: Memphis forward Austin Nichols, top rookie; Cincinnati's Justin Jackson, defender; Michael Dixon, Jr., Memphis, sixth man; Temple's Jimmy McDonnell, scholar-athlete; Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, most improved.

Napier also was named to the United States Basketball Writers Association All-American first team on Wednesday. Smith also made first team and Kilpatrick was on the second team.


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