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The Great Divide
June 24, 2013
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
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June 24, 2013

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

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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."

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