NBA teams dissect Muhammad, Zeller at combine
CHICAGO -- Soaked in sweat, former UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad settled into a folding chair on Thursday morning and was immediately swallowed by a sea of cameras, digital recorders and notebooks. There were nearly a dozen other potential draft picks in the makeshift press room at Harrison Street Athletics Facility, site of the 2013 NBA Draft Combine, but most of the attention was devoted to Muhammad, the flashy, volume scoring swingman who is fast becoming the most debated player in the draft.
At 6-foot-6, 220-pounds, Muhammad already has an NBA body. He's powerful, rebounds well for his position and made strides as a halfcourt player in UCLA's system, which often required him to come off screens. And Muhammad believes the NBA's free flowing style will unlock even more of his offensive potential.
"The NBA is more up-tempo and spaces the floor," Muhammad said. "UCLA was great for me, I learned a lot and I loved Coach Howland as a coach, but there was a lot of structure. I can go right, I can take guys off the dribble. I can play pick-and-roll. I think I can score the ball in a variety of ways."
"I have a preference for playing the two-guard. I think I can be one of the tallest guys playing the two. I was out here with the three's today and I have some good size for that position but I think if I'm a two, I can do a lot of damage at the guard position."
Yet Muhammad has become something of an enigma. Many executives expressed concern that he is only effective going left. One exec cited the mechanics on his jump shot as an area of concern. Another raised Muhammad's one-dimensional game as a reason he could free fall in the draft.
"The analytics people don't like guys who only do one thing," said an Eastern Conference exec. "And in this draft, where there is so much parity out there, the analytics are going to play a big part."
Credit Muhammad for this: While Ben McLemore, Cody Zeller, Mason Plumlee and other projected high first-round picks sat out the drills portion of the combine, Muhammad came to work. He didn't shoot the ball particularly well, two executives remarked. But he played hard and was clearly eager to showcase a more rounded game. And despite battling through a controversial freshman season at UCLA -- one marred by accusations of selfishness, an NCAA suspension and a public dispute about his age -- Muhammad came to the combine ready and willing to address any issues teams had with him head on.
"I love the interviews," Muhammad said. "I knew there were going to be those questions. I wanted to get them out of the way. I was so happy to get to it. I was telling them everything, telling them the truth, letting them know I'm a good kid, I'm here to play basketball."
"I'm 20 years old. I have my license. I never declared that I wasn't 20. I don't know what [caused him to be listed at 19]. If someone asked me, I'm 20. My license says I was born in 1992. I can't deny it. I can't say I'm 19 and someone looks at my license and say I'm 19 if I was born in '92. Unless you can't count, you know I'm 20."
Muhammad -- who has met with Minnesota, Portland, Toronto and Houston, with more interviews scheduled for Thursday -- made it clear that after years of allowing others to speak for him, no one will anymore.
"I'm going to speak for myself now," Muhammad said. "I was a guy who used to play basketball and let some of my guys talk for me, family members. I think now I'm a more mature person and I'm just going to talk for myself. I think that's the right way to do it."
Wingspan. It's one of NBA executives' favorite measurements and a word Indiana's Cody Zeller is tired of hearing. Despite a productive sophomore season at IU, where the 7-foot Zeller averaged 16.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, much of the talk in the last few weeks has focused on Zeller's short wingspan, which according to multiple reports is 6-foot-8.
But here's the thing: Zeller -- who will be officially measured on Friday -- says reports of his short wingspan have been inaccurate. According to Zeller, his wingspan is 6-foot-10 3/4.
"It's still not good," Zeller said. "But it's better than 6-foot-8."
A projected top-three pick in November, Zeller's NBA stock slipped during the season as his numbers didn't significantly improve from his freshman year. Several NBA executives say Zeller plays small for someone his size. Still, Zeller says he considers his final year at Indiana a successful season.
"I thought we had a great year, individually and as a team," Zeller said. "We had high expectations for the season, and we would have liked to win a national championship. But we still won maybe the best conference in the country. And I thought I had a great year individually as well. My numbers went up since my freshman year and I had all the attention of double and triple teams, the numbers didn't [improve] too much but I feel like I improved a lot."
Zeller, who interviewed with Toronto, Portland, Houston and Boston, says he sees himself as a power forward in the NBA.
"There are a lot of comparisons to LaMarcus Aldridge," Zeller said. "I can catch in the mid-post and use my quickness. I didn't shoot it from outside as much this year. I think I have that ability. It [won't be] a huge adjustment for me, proving I can do what I already know."
Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Portland's Damian Lillard, the recently crowned NBA Rookie of the Year, have a lot in common. Both were smallish, prolific scoring guards for mid-major schools. Both suffered fractures of the fifth metatarsal during their college careers. And both came to the NBA with questions as to whether they could play point guard at the next level.
I think we're similar in terms of the demeanor, in the way he carries himself on the court," McCollum said. "Nothing fazes him. That's from playing four years in college. He has that experience, that mental edge, that push. That's one of the things we both have. When you come from a small school, you have to put in more time than the other guys."
Last January, McCollum's senior season ended with a foot injury. McCollum says he was fully cleared 2 1/2 weeks ago and that he is already "in game shape." He says he refused to have his foot put in a cast after the surgery to repair the injury, instead opting for a walking boot so he could begin his rehabilitation immediately. He shot from chairs and on one foot and took up boxing to keep his conditioning at a high level.
McCollum says he believes he can play either guard spot but when pressed said his preferred position was the point, where his offensive explosiveness (he averaged 23.9 points last season) can be more of an asset. At Lehigh, McCollum was put in plenty of pick-and-roll situations, one of the NBA's bread and butter plays. He says he has zeroed in on tightening up his ball handling but does not want to stray too far from what got him to this point. He cited San Antonio's Tony Parker as an example of a playmaker who can distribute but also come off of screens and be a scorer.
"You don't want to lose your strengths," McCollum said. "I don't think I'll ever be a pass first point guard because of the capabilities I have on offense. I have to embrace and accept that. When guys go under screens, you shoot it. And being a bigger point guard, running the show, it provides more of a challenge for opposing teams."
Interest in McCollum is high: On Thursday, McCollum said he was scheduled to interview with 15 teams, including Oklahoma City, Orlando, Denver and Cleveland.
When you are an NBA prospect playing for a small school, every big, nationally televised matchup is important. So Bucknell's Mike Muscala knows just how badly he blew it when he posted nine points (on 4-of-17 shooting) against Butler center Andrew Smith in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"It was really disappointing," Muscala said. "Coming from a small university, when you get on the big stage you want to play well. I was ready for the challenge. I had heard [Smith] did well against Kelly [Olynyk] and [Cody] Zeller. He did a really good job. It just didn't go my way. I thought I got good position, took good shots; they just wouldn't go in."
The Butler game was a bitter end to an otherwise productive career for Muscala, who led the nation in double-doubles (22) as a senior and was named the Patriot League's Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Muscala considers himself the ultimate student of the game, one who lifts the best from every player he watches on tape. He developed his midrange game after seeing how successful Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge used it so effectively and has carefully studied Kobe Bryant's footwork.
Muscala, who interviewed with Sacramento and Atlanta, will likely slip to the second round. But he believes his ability to be a stretch-four will land him a roster spot.
"I think I'm a good outside shooter," Muscala said. "We do a lot of pick and roll and pick and pop at Bucknell in our offense. I'm used to that. I was doing that for four years. I can do it in the NBA."