When a rookie comes to the NBA, he must adjust to a whole host of changes from college or a foreign league. The NBA has its own customs, both on the court and off, and it's understandable that it would take players a few weeks or months (or even years) to get comfortable. It can be tough to be without a known support system, to learn how to buy groceries or tell someone how to do your laundry. Plus, there's the issue of figuring out how to contribute and thrive in the best basketball league in the world.
But it's a bit surprising to learn that these adjustments can affect even the most familiar and basic parts of the sport. Miami Heat rookie point guard Shabazz Napier, a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut, has a lot to learn and improve upon if he's going to reach the same level of success in the pros. First, though, he's going to have to figure out how to handle the NBA basketball. The literal object, not the style of play. From Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press (via PBT):
Sounds strange, but it's true. One of the biggest points of personal emphasis for Napier — a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut and a first-round draft pick this year — as he gets ready for the start of Heat camp next month is getting used to the feel of the NBA basketball, which is much different to the touch than the ones he used in college.
"I just want to continue to get better at everything," Napier said. "But my biggest thing is getting comfortable with that basketball. That's one of my biggest problems and it's kind of ironic, because it's a basketball. But it's different than a college basketball." [...]
"The funny thing is, I never really touched an NBA ball until I left school," Napier said. "I told myself I never wanted to. I felt like it was superstitious, like something bad was going to happen, like I had to earn it. I never touched it and it's definitely different. This ball is leather and the biggest thing for me now is getting comfortable with it."
At UConn, he used a Nike ball, and one of the quirks of the college game is that different teams use different types of basketballs. In the NBA, it's uniform, with Spalding being the only ball used.
Napier isn't the only Heat rookie who says the new ball has a new feel.
"It is different," said Tyler Johnson, who parlayed a strong summer league showing into a Heat signing. "Especially coming out of college. A lot of times, if the basketball gets wet, it gets slippery. Here, you get your hands wet to make it stick. It's slippery on its own. It takes a little while to get that feel for it. It is a little bit different but you kind of forget about it after a while."
NBA players have complained about balls before, of course, but the circumstances are much different. The league introduced a new microfiber ball for the 2006-07 season, only for players to rail against the switch from leather and the fact that they weren't consulted before the change. The new ball lasted only a few months — the league switched back on January 1, 2007 — and it stands as one of the most embarrassing moments of David Stern's 30 years as commissioner.
Napier, though, knew exactly what he was getting into, which makes it a bit surprising that he had never handled the official ball before preparing for the draft. That's not to say that he has made a horrible mistake — it's just that such basic things can be easy to overlook when players are faced with so many adjustments.
Napier's discomfort shouldn't really become a problem unless it persists into training camp, when prolonged exposure could begin to make the issue look more like an excuse. Nevertheless, his comments should remind us just how much it takes to succeed early in an NBA career. These athletes even have to switch up how they handle the ball that has defined the shape of their basketball lives. At least keyboards are basically the same from computer to computer.
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