NEW YORK – Privately, NBA executives had feared that the case of Shabazz Muhammad could present an unprecedented problem: Perhaps the best pro prospect in the draft class would never get his eligibility at UCLA, never giving them a prism to truly evaluate a possible No. 1 pick.
The NCAA had held him out of UCLA's summer trip to China, three games to start the season, but couldn't ultimately close on the leads that it had been chasing on illegal benefits for Muhammad and his family. For all the predictable – and legitimate suspicions – on the associations surrounding the most recruited high school star in America, the business of basketball's food chain needed Muhammad where he emerged on Monday night: Inside the Barclays Center for his college debut, with nearly 50 NBA executives beginning an intensive evaluation of him against high-level competition.
Muhammad let out a deep breath at the scorer's table on Monday night, checking into the UCLA-Georgetown game at the Legends Classic, checking into what promises to be one of the most scrutinized one-and-done college seasons in years. For this will be an unfolding drama about who will become the No. 1 pick in the June draft, and it started with Muhammad's understandably unsteady 15 points in a 78-70 loss to Georgetown.
The scouts had wanted to see Muhammad on Tuesday night, in the tournament final against the No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers. Nevertheless, Georgetown delivered UCLA a clinic on back cuts and zone defense, reducing these superstar Bruin freshmen into largely lost, confused kids. They need time together. For most franchises – for the well-regarded DraftExpress.com – Muhammad and Indiana sophomore power forward Cody Zeller represent two out of the top three candidates for the No. 1 overall pick in June.
"I wanted to get a shot at them," Muhammad said. "But we know we really aren't ready yet."
Not the Bruins, nor Muhammad. Truth be told, Indiana would've destroyed UCLA on Tuesday night. For all the starry All-America freshmen at UCLA – Kyle Anderson to Jordan Adams to Muhammad – the Hoosiers are a throwback program of pro prospects. Beyond the clear greatness of Zeller, a highly recruited prospect, Indiana has become a pure player development machine under coach Tom Crean. From juniors Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, to seniors Jordan Hulls (think Travis Deiner) and Christian Watford, pro scouts marvel over the development of modestly recruited players into draft-able prospects.
"I think Muhammad is lucky they lost to [Georgetown]," one Western Conference executive said. "Indiana would've put Oladipo on him, and I'm not sure [Muhammad's] ready for that yet.
Muhammad has constructed his pre-college reputation on how fiercely he competes on the floor, how he uses that explosive and chiseled 6-foot-6 frame inside and outside. "His greatest talent is his competitiveness," said an assistant GM who spent several days watching Muhammad in national team practices at the Hoop Summit in the spring. "He's relentless. But does he have the skill level to be the No. 1 pick? I still need to see that out of him."
Muhammad has missed so much time since the summer, missed out on the preseason with a separated shoulder and the NCAA probe, that it was unfair to expect too much out of him in Brooklyn. Everyone knew that Kentucky's Anthony Davis would be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, as far back as his first few weeks in Lexington.
This year, it's different. As one assistant GM of a likely lottery team said, "Whoever is the No. 1 pick, he'll play himself into it this year. I don't think it will ever be a clear-cut choice."
As one Western Conference executive was leaving Barclays on Monday night, he knew he'd have to see Shabazz Muhammad over and over this season. After watching Zeller and Muhammad, he did have a suspicion about this spring's draft. "I think you're going to see a team who gets that first overall pick who will seriously think about trading down and moving out of it."
Muhammad had his moments Monday night – shooting from deep, getting to the rim – but it was far too soon for him to dominate these experienced, well-coached Georgetown Hoyas. Everyone had come to see the freeing of Muhammad and perhaps that will still take time for him. Everyone wanted to see him against No. 1 Indiana, see him against Zeller, but fate probably did him a favor.
Muhammad and UCLA could be terrific this season, the kid could be a superstar, and yet he's nowhere near there now. Even in these one-and-done times, the kid needs time on the practice court, needs time with his teammates. In Brooklyn on Monday night, this was too much, too soon.
Yet, this is the reality of his circumstance: The judging started at the Legends Classic, all these NBA eyes bearing down on him, and those judgments get only harsher from here. For whatever freeing the NCAA had done of Shabazz Muhammad, his next fight is against becoming a prisoner of the immense expectations that surround him.
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