The Great Divide

Controversy has dogged Shabazz Muhammad, so it's no surprise that the UCLA swingman, who scores but does little else, is the most polarizing prospect
June 24, 2013

BIG BOARD

A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING DRAFT PROSPECTS

On the leafy campus of UC Santa Barbara, in a quiet gym 100 miles from UCLA and a world away from his forgettable freshman season, Shabazz Muhammad does what he did as a kid on the Las Vegas blacktops, during his career at Bishop Gorman High and in his lone year as a Bruin: He scores. With his personal coach, Drew Hanlen, on his hip, the 6'6" Muhammad dips into his repertoire on command. "Step back," barks Hanlen, and Muhammad frees himself with a dribble, retreats with one long stride and drills a 17-footer. "Blitz coming," Hanlen shouts, and Muhammad takes three dribbles backward, two more hard bounces inside the three-point line, and nails another lefthanded jumper. Later, Hanlen pulls out a thick pad and whacks Muhammad with it as he elevates for runners. After Muhammad misses his first two, his workout partner, Jordan Williams, a 2011 second-round pick and a spirited heckler, cackles that he is in Muhammad's head. Muhammad glances at Williams, expressionless, and proceeds to make his next five shots. "O.K.," says Williams. "Maybe not."

Accomplished scorers are coveted in the NBA, and Muhammad averaged 17.9 points last season. Do the math. "If there were an NBA game tomorrow, you could put him in your rotation," says Arizona State associate head coach Eric Musselman, the former coach of the Warriors and the Kings. "There are probably less than 10 guys in this draft you can say that about." Still, Muhammad is easily the most polarizing prospect. Some teams see a 222-pound point machine who can slide effortlessly between the two and the three. Others see an overhyped, one-dimensional player who can't play without the ball and pouts when he doesn't get it. "He's a little arrogant, a little aloof, and he plays selfishly," says one G.M. "He can score, but he's not a dynamic athlete. There is a low ceiling for guys like that."

Between sips of organic juice, Muhammad addresses his critics. Eight months ago he was college basketball's hottest property, the nation's most-hyped freshman and a strong candidate to be the No. 1 pick on June 27. Now, on some boards he's fallen out of the lottery. "People saying I'm selfish, I'm not a team player, I don't understand that," says Muhammad. "Those people don't know me. I'm the kind of guy who will do anything for the team."

If Muhammad could hop in a DeLorean and travel back in time, he would make two stops. The first would be Feb. 7, 2013, at Pauley Pavilion, in the closing seconds of UCLA's game against Washington. With the clock winding down and the score 57-all, Muhammad curled off a screen to the top of the key. He stomped, clapped and waved his hands at point guard Larry Drew II, who looked him off, drove and pulled up for a game-winning jumper. As Bruins piled onto Drew, Muhammad breezed past the celebration.

Video of the incident went viral, and the next day Muhammad was a punching bag for pundits. Admitting it wasn't one of his finest moments, he insists he had no beef with Drew taking the final shot. "In the locker room I was one of the first guys to slap Larry on the back," says Muhammad. "And when it blew up, we were texting each other, wondering what the big deal is. But I get it. It's L.A., it's a big market and a lot of eyes are on us, on me. I should have shown more enthusiasm."

"The Washington game was totally overblown," says Idaho coach Scott Garson, a UCLA assistant last season. "I can speak for our whole staff when I say Shabazz was always happy for the success of his teammates."

He was there for them, too. Muhammad battled ankle and shoulder injuries but missed only three games—the three he was forced to sit out at the beginning of the season as a penalty for accepting improper travel and lodging benefits during recruiting visits. In late February, Muhammad developed a nasty case of conjunctivitis and had to practice with goggles for a week; his teammates were so afraid of catching it that instead of putting their hands in during huddles, they touched elbows. On the morning of a game against USC, Muhammad was experiencing sharp pain and blurry vision in his swollen right eye. Team doctors told him to sit out. He started, scoring 11 points in 31 minutes in a blowout win. "If this kid were selfish, he would not have played," says Garson. "He wasn't close to 100 percent. But he knew we needed him."

Muhammad's other quantum leap would be to March 21, 2013, a day before the Los Angeles Times reported that he was not 19, as he was listed in the UCLA media guide, but 20. "Looking back, I should have gotten in front of that," says Muhammad. "I'm 20. My license says that I'm 20. I should not have let it get to that point."

Muhammad says he learned a lesson from the Times story: Speak up. For most of his life Muhammad had let others speak for him. His father, Ron Holmes, a standout guard at USC in the 1980s, was determined to develop a superstar, and he did. Muhammad attended Bishop Gorman, a $12,000 per year private school in Las Vegas, and spent his summers jetting across the country to camps. He was offered scholarships by USC and UNLV in the eighth grade and by North Carolina as a freshman. His family, trying to control his narrative, insulated him. But beginning at the draft combine in May, Muhammad has been more outspoken. He hasn't dodged any questions, including those about his father, who has been indicted on federal bank-fraud and conspiracy charges. (His trial is scheduled for August.) Muhammad says he talks to his dad "from time to time." Says Muhammad, "He's handling his business. It's important for me to separate from his stuff and focus on the NBA."

Muhammad learned something else last season: His game needed work. When UCLA's season ended, Muhammad teamed up with Hanlen, a skills coach who has worked with, among others, Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Warriors forward David Lee. On their first day together, Hanlen was blunt. "I told him that I was one of his haters," says Hanlen. "I wasn't sold on his game."

Hanlen immediately rebuilt Muhammad's jumper, lifting his elbow to increase the shot's arc and changing the position of his hand on the ball so it rolled off his index finger, creating backspin, instead of his pinky and ring fingers, which resulted in sidespin. Hanlen and Muhammad have studied hours of tape of James Harden, another southpaw who has masterly body control and a diverse array of moves at the rim. "A common criticism of Shabazz is that he only goes left," says Hanlen. "Well, everyone in the league knows Harden is going left, and he still finishes. Shabazz has the type of body that if he uses it right, there's a lot he can do."

Here's the thing about NBA executives: There's a lot of stuff they don't care about. An overbearing parent? Our team has 10 of them. Bit of an attitude? What great player doesn't? You're (gulp) 20? So what? "The off-the-court stuff he's connected to doesn't exist," says a G.M. of a team that has done extensive research on Muhammad. "That's his father, not him. None of that matters."

What does worry teams is the limited scope of his ability. Analytics have become a key part of player evaluations, and they don't favor one-trick ponies like Muhammad, a below-average defender who struggles to create offense off the dribble and has shown little interest in passing. Consider: In 32 games last season he had 27 assists. Muhammad has been a star since he picked up a basketball, and one question most teams ask him is if he can play in a system, if he can play with players better than him. Muhammad has done his best to persuade teams he can, but, one exec says, "when you ask him, he looks insulted, like, How can you possibly think I'm not going to be a star?"

Of course, when a hyped prospect like Muhammad stumbles, there can be overcorrections on draft day. "People are looking for things wrong with Muhammad," says a Western Conference G.M. "And because of that, he will be undervalued."

On draft night some team will choose Muhammad, most likely in the lottery, because it believes he can score, because it believes that underneath the controversy and imperfections there is too much talent to pass up. Muhammad, says Garson, "plays with a chip on his shoulder," and that's exactly how an NBA team wants him: desperate to improve, eager to drown the doubters out. "People criticizing me, they are the ones who are going to make me better," Muhammad says. "I'm coming to work."

Musselman believes Muhammad could step right into an NBA team's rotation.

SI.COM

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PHOTOTODD BIGELOW FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDWHINER OF WESTWOOD? Muhammad didn't help his reputation when he was caught on tape refusing to join in a celebration after a teammate sank a last-second shot.
PHOTOPORTER BINKS (MUHAMMAD)EARLY OFFENSE As a freshman Muhammad led UCLA with 17.9 points per game, the highest by a Bruin in eight years.

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