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Free from NCAA grip, Muhummad proves work left to do in UCLA loss

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It was the end of a saga and the beginning of a college career, but it fell well short of a celebration.

Nine months had elapsed since the NCAA warned schools recruiting Shabazz Muhammad, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class of 2012 and the early favorite to go No. 1 in the 2013 NBA Draft, that it was looking into his family's relationship with two financial planners. Ten days had passed since the NCAA declared Muhammad ineligible to play for UCLA; and it was just three days ago that he (and his lawyer) surprisingly won an appeal to serve only a three-game suspension and pay back $1,600 in travel expenses. The "Free Shabazz Muhammad" campaign that produced at least three variations of t-shirts -- including a D.I.Y. one Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea wore when he played the national anthem at the season opener -- ended on Nov. 16 at 7:07 p.m., when Muhammad dropped a one-word Tweet that was retweeted 1,923 times:

#FREE

And so Muhammad was at Barclays Center for the Legends Classic semifinals on Monday, free from the tyranny of the NCAA, free to suit up against Georgetown, free to play for the No. 11-ranked Bruins in what was being unofficially -- and perhaps unfairly -- referred to as the Shabazz Game. Unfortunately there were circumstances that prevented the 6-foot-6 lefty small forward from being #FREE to debut in a manner befitting a No. 1 prospect.

For one, Muhammad was not in the starting lineup of UCLA's 78-70 loss to the unranked Hoyas. He took the court for warmups bedecked in layers of lower-body flair, but no amount of remarks -- "Are those tribal-patterned soccer shinpads? Diamond-patterned socks? Tennis-ball neon Adidas shoes?" -- could distract from the fact that he was not in tip-top physical condition. The NCAA's prolonged eligibility-review process robbed him of part of his preseason, including the Bruins' August trip to China, and serious shoulder and ankle injuries robbed him of weeks of practice. Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, who made the trip (along with his family) from Las Vegas and sat in the second row across from UCLA's bench, said of Shabazz, "He's not in the kind of shape that he needs to be in."

Thus Muhammad stayed on the bench for the first five minutes and 48 seconds, too jittery to clap or yell or do anything other than fidget until coach Ben Howland called his name at the 14:12 mark. There was a scattered standing ovation when Muhammed checked in, including a man wearing one of those now-useless "Free" t-shirts. (Or maybe the message will be repurposed, as a plea to Howland to play him sooner, should he remain the eighth man in the rotation, and opponents keep going on 10-2 runs to open games, as Georgetown did.)

Muhammad scored in less than a minute, on a smooth catch-and-one-dribble pull-up jumper in transition. There was no hesitation, and I was reminded of an earlier conversation with an NBA scout, who told me to expect Muhammad to immediately and aggressively hunt for points. "He shoots a lot," the scout said, "but he makes a lot of them, too. He's going to be a big-time scorer."

It was soon evident, though, that Muhammad needs more practice time before he can be big-time. In his first isolation situation, he drove left on Hoyas forward Greg Whittington, but didn't have enough explosiveness to get to the rim, and was rejected so hard that he fell to the floor. He was yanked after four minutes, and in his second stint of the first half, he was burned on defense by Otto Porter in the post, and had another shot altered by Whittington. Muhammad went into the break 2-of-6 from the field for four points, and finished with a quiet 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, and just one rebound.

Holmes planned to talk to Muhammad about rebounding more ("I thought he was a little tentative, just getting his feet wet," he said), and Howland, no doubt, will talk to the Bruins about their D after being carved up by Georgetown to the tune of 54.5 percent shooting. The coup de grace may have come with 6:17 left in the second half, when Muhammad was backed down in the post by 6-8 Hoyas forward Nate Lubick, and gave up so much ground that Lubick, a righty, effortlessly dropped in a lefty hook to make the score 66-54, and kill any comeback momentum.

In the end, the Shabazz Game taught us little about Shabazz or UCLA, which does not yet have much offensive structure or even a solidified rotation, and a lot about Georgetown, namely that:

• The Hoyas deserve to be a top-20 team and have a legitimate shot to knock off No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday.

• Porter was the best player on the floor, and he needs to be in the All-America conversation if he keeps putting up lines like he did on Monday, after sitting out Georgetown's past three halves due to concussion-like symptoms: 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two turnovers, five blocks, three steals. "Otto's first full game," coach John Thompson III said, "is a full game."

• The Hoyas put on a defensive clinic, both on an individual level (with smothering on-ball D from the 6-8 Porter and Whittington), and a team level (with a 2-3 zone that confounded the Bruins' rookies). After ranking No. 1 in the country in three-point defense last season, Georgetown appeared similarly stingy on Monday, closing out on UCLA's gunners well enough to hold them to 5-of-19 from long range.

Muhammad made two of those threes, but they came too deep in the game to have any real impact, as the Hoyas' lead never dropped below seven points in the final five minutes. His late scoring, if anything, was a teaser of what we might see come January, when he'll presumably be the Bruins' featured offensive option. As he said on Monday -- and everyone should believe him -- "I think I can get a lot better."

With 1:02 left in his debut, Muhammad had the chance to at least leave Brooklyn with a signature moment. Fellow freshman Kyle Anderson dished to him in the lane, and Muhammad had momentum heading to the rim. He rose up from a good distance, and as he cocked back for a lefty dunk, it was unclear, given his condition (slightly overweight, a tad slow) if he could actually complete the jam. Georgetown's Mikael Hopkins kept the answer in the realm of the unknown, hacking Muhammad during a block attempt.

As Muhammad stood at the free-throw line, a UCLA fan yelled to Hopkins, "You're lucky he's not in game shape! You was about to be in the top 10!"

He was referring to the top 10 plays on SportsCenter. Muhammad did not get there. He is free to play, but not yet physically free to to play up to expectations. The phenom who waited for eligibility now must wait for stardom.

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