MISSOULA — As the Montana Grizzlies have gained their footing in Big Sky Conference play, a key contributor and role player in that success has been sophomore forward Jaxon Nap.
Nap brings a unique skill set, with a 6-foot-7 frame and the athleticism of a guard that Montana has found a way to utilize.
"It's something that I feel like is a huge advantage," Nap said. "I mean, in basketball, being taller always helps. But being able to add to our rotation being a little bit taller of a guard just kind of stretches the floor out a little bit, gets a little more space for some of our bigs."
Nap played sparingly as a freshman a year ago and earlier this season, but as injuries began to mount for the Griz he started to see his number called. He in turn took advantage of his opportunity and has stuck in the rotation more consistently the past five games, having played at least 15 minutes or more in four of those contests.
Notably, against Montana State Nap turned in an eye-popping performance as he played 22 minutes — a career high against a Division I opponent — and he was Montana's leading scorer with 17 points (another career high) as he went 4 for 5 from the field including a pair of 3-pointers as the Grizzlies topped the rival Bobcats.
"I think he's doing a better job with decision-making and finding different ways to blend in with our chemistry on the offensive side of the ball, and I think his attention to detail on the defensive side is helping us too with depth and rebounding and his size gives us a lot of versatility," UM head coach Travis DeCuire said. "So he's stayed ready and he's going to be impactful for these wins moving forward."
Nap's journey to UM was different as well.
The Renton, Washington, native was found by UM when he was a 6-foot guard as a sophomore in high school, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person meetings and recruiting.
So once that was allowed again heading into his senior year, Nap had grown seven inches in less than two years when UM's staff saw him again, and an offer soon followed.
Now in his second season, finding comfort and consistency on the court has allowed Nap to grow and gain confidence, and make an impact on offense, but notably on defense as well, as he's often been tasked with guarding the opposing team's best player, including Weber State's Dillon Jones — the Big Sky preseason player of the year — as well as Montana State's Brian Goracke and Northern Colorado's Saint Thomas.
"That kind of was the start of building a little bit of confidence," Nap said of seeing his minutes extended against Northern Colorado. "And then once you get in the game for a little bit longer, you can kind of get more comfortable with the stuff that you're more accustomed to. And you don't have to worry about all the little, little things and kind of just go out there and play basketball.
"Coach Trav, he's really harped on defense for me, especially because he knows that I'm a good offensive player. And that's what they kind of recruited me for. But he really challenges me to try and make an impact on the defensive end with my quickness and my size also. It shows that he knows that I'm capable, and it puts a lot of confidence in me and and again, that helps feed to being able to play with more energy and more confidence. It's only going to make me better on the defensive end is guarding guys like that."
The hard work and patience is paying off for Nap, and his development gives Montana depth as well as a glimpse at what the future may possess for the budding talent.
"It means everything," Nap said. "I love basketball. And I've been very, very blessed by this community and everything and be able to basically show that hard work that I put in over my whole life. It's been awesome. This is a great place to do it. So being able to show off what I've been working on is it means a lot."