Draft Preview: Shabazz Muhammad

Much at stake for UCLA frosh on workout circuit in month until draft

Shabazz Muhammad
UCLA small forward Shabazz Muhammad
Harry How (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Sixth in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Monday: Otto Porter.)

They grew up in opposite corners of the United States, one a right-hander and the other a lefty. One’s a classic center with game-changing ability despite nothing in the way of a signature offensive move, the other a prototypical small forward who must prove he can do something besides score to thrive at the NBA level.

For all of their stark differences, Shabazz Muhammad is to the 2013 NBA draft what Andre Drummond was 12 months earlier. They both entered their college freshman seasons in the thick of discussion to be the No. 1 pick the following spring, then saw their stock gradually sink as each passing month raised more questions about their ability to transition to the NBA.

Muhammad’s stock peaked last April, when he scored a record 35 of Team USA’s 75 points at the Nike Hoop Summit, as well scouted by NBA personnel executives as any annual event in the world. He was universally regarded as the nation’s No. 1 recruit by major scouting services, choosing UCLA from the usual slew of powerhouse offers.

Just as Drummond was considered 1 and 1A with Anthony Davis a year earlier after he reclassified to be in the high school class of 2011, so Muhammad and Nerlens Noel were 1 and 1A throughout last summer.

The first hurdle for Muhammad was laid down by the NCAA, which launched a probe over amateur eligibility that cost him UCLA’s first three games. He debuted against Georgetown on a neutral court, Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center, and was upstaged by a player at the time who was fairly unheralded. Otto Porter, ironically enough, now stands as likely to be the first small forward taken, ahead of Muhammad, after putting up 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, five steals and three blocked shots that night, his versatility standing in contrast to Muhammad’s more one-dimensional appeal.

Despite playing 31 minutes a game and averaging 18 points, Muhammad finished his college career with 27 assists, less than one per game. Nothing about him suggests he’ll ever be more than a passable defender. Not considered a pure shooter, Muhammad does his damage in a variety of ways, most involving his strength, toughness and a scorer’s mentality.

For all of the question marks that hover over him – amplified by the embarrassing Los Angeles Times revelation on the day of UCLA’s first-round NCAA tournament game that he was a year older than had been believed – Muhammad projects an air of confidence common to dominant scorers.

“I’m a guy who thinks he’s the best player in the draft,” he said after being the only likely top-10 pick to go through the first day of workouts at this month’s Chicago draft combine.

Evaluators with lottery teams will spend hours between now and June 27 trying to discern if Muhammad’s one overriding strength, scoring, will translate to the NBA at a level that warrants taking him that high. As unlikely as it seemed last November, there now appears at least an even-money chance that Muhammad will be available to the Pistons when they go on the clock with the eighth pick.

But things could change dramatically on that count over the next four weeks. There might not be a player in this draft with more at stake in individual workouts than Muhammad. There’s a school of thought that UCLA players under Ben Howland, for whatever reason, have exceeded expectations in the NBA after college careers that produced lingering questions, from Russell Westbrook to Jrue Holiday to Arron Afflalo. Muhammad could plant the seed during individual workouts that he, too, wasn’t able to fully shine for the good of the team. He believes, at least, that his game is better suited to the NBA.

“I think it translates a lot,” he said. “If you look at the NBA game, it’s really up-tempo and you can space out the floor more. There was a lot of structure at UCLA. It was great for me – I loved coach Howland – but there was a lot of structure and having to learn, playing up-tempo all my life, playing off the dribble. That’s one thing I like about the NBA. My game can really translate.”

He especially likes the way he’d fit with the Pistons, Muhammad said.

“Great fit,” he said. “I love Andre. That’s my guy. And Greg (Monroe) and Brandon Knight also, who is a really good point guard. I see myself really fitting well with them. I like the young teams that have bits and pieces and I think I could really learn a lot and come out off the get-go and try to help them out right away.”

Muhammad figures to be a player the Pistons will heavily scrutinize. On paper, he fits what they need, if they indeed believe he has the ability to be a consistent NBA scorer at small forward to complement the Monroe-Drummond frontcourt that offers a little bit to a lot of everything else.

Muhammad’s draft combine experience was a mixed bag. He didn’t shoot well and his 6-foot-6¼ measurement in shoes will cause some to wonder if he’s big enough to consistently guard small forwards, the position most see as his NBA home. Muhammad, though, projects himself to shooting guard, where teams will worry about his lateral quickness coming into play defensively.

“I have a preference for the two,” he said. “I think if I can play the two, I’m going to be one of the tallest guys. I can do a lot of damage at the guard position.”

Just as predraft workouts will be critical for Muhammad, so will his interviews with teams who’ll want to find out what makes him tick. The Pistons, who interviewed Muhammad in Chicago, will very likely have him to Auburn Hills for both an individual workout and another chance to sit down with Joe Dumars and his staff. Muhammad’s vision of himself as the best player in the draft and a future star might scare as many executives as it intrigues. If his talent doesn’t allow him to be a first scoring option, they will wonder, will he have the mind-set to become an effective role player?

Muhammad knows tough questions are coming his way, including the role of his father, portrayed as domineering and manipulative by the Times’ story, who picked a spouse, the story contended, with the intent of producing world-class athletes from their union. The questions might have gained oxygen with Thursday’s news that his father, Ronald Holmes, was indicted on federal bank fraud and conspiracy charges revolving around the obtaining of mortgage loans.

He started getting a taste of those questions in Chicago.

“I knew they were going to go over those questions,” Muhammad said, including the ones that led to his NCAA suspension when a family friend paid for unofficial recruiting trips across the country. “I just wanted to get them out of the way so they can know what’s really going on. A lot of people speculate how bad I am as a player, but I really cleared it up and I’m also happy to get that stuff and can’t wait to do the other interviews. I’m telling them everything, just telling them the truth. I’m a good kid. I’m here to play basketball and here to make a team really win.”

Muhammad volunteered James Harden’s name when asked to evaluate himself – a common comparison dating to before his arrival at UCLA – but quickly admitted he had work to do to merit such company, particularly with his right hand.

“I mean, he’s so good off the dribble,” he said. “That’s one thing I really want to work on. I’ve been watching a lot of his tapes. He’s a really good player. If I get to come off the dribble and stuff like that, I’m going to be a really good player.”

Muhammad isn’t an explosive athlete, though scouts will tell you he’s more athletic than Harden was coming out of college. His 6-foot-11 wing span and 37-inch vertical leap might assuage some of the doubts about whether Muhammad has the size or length to guard taller small forwards among teams picking in the Pistons’ range.

If he’s on the board when they pick at No. 8, it will be up to Joe Dumars to decide if Shabazz Muhammad can do as Andre Drummond did before him and make laughable the questions about his ability to effectively transition to the NBA.