UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad out to change perceptions before NBA draft

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This time last year, Shabazz Muhammad probably thought one year at UCLA would give him the chance to showcase his scoring ability and mature game, building upon his hype as the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2013 NBA draft.

Instead, Muhammad was dissected and criticized during a freshman season so shrouded in controversy that the weeks leading up to the June 27 draft will be about altering negative perceptions about his character and his game.

“Being the number one guy, everybody wants you to fall,” Muhammad said last week at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. “Guys want you to fall all the time. You’re going to have guys out there that’s not going to want you to succeed. That’s why I’m going to work as hard as I can to prove those guys wrong.

“I know I’m a great player,” he said. “I’m a guy that believes he’s the best player in the draft. I’m going to tell you the truth.”

Muhammad took the first step toward repairing his image last week in Chicago, where the 6-foot-6 swingman was one of the few big-name prospects who participated in all of the workouts and drills. He also eagerly explained himself to anyone who had misgivings about him, letting it be known that he is done letting others speak on his behalf.

“I’m going to talk for myself now. I was a guy who used to just play for basketball and let some of my guys talk for me – family members – but right now, I’m more mature as a person and I’m just going to talk for myself. I think that’s the right way to do it,” Muhammad said, adding that he has grown from those missteps. “It made me tighten my circle a lot; knowing who I can trust and who I can’t. But as a kid you learn. Some of those situations were good learning experiences. And standing here today, I feel real comfortable. I’m more mature as a player and I’m believing in myself.”

In his one college season, Muhammad failed to live up to his billing despite averaging 17.9 points and 5.2 rebounds and leading UCLA to the Pacific-12 regular season title. Muhammad was also blamed for the Bruins’ inconsistent play and earned a reputation for being a bad teammate who was only concerned about his own numbers.

Off the court, Muhammad had to serve a suspension for receiving improper benefits during recruiting visits, and it was revealed in March that he was actually 20 and not 19, as many were led to believe.

“I don’t know what it was,” Muhammad said, when asked about being listed as 19 last season. “Somebody asks me, I’m 20. I mean, you look at my license, it’s 1992. I can’t say I’m 19 and somebody looks at my license and it says 1992 unless you can’t count.”

Muhammad said that he benefited from playing under former UCLA coach Ben Howland’s structured offense and defensive-oriented system, but he also believes that his game is better suited for the NBA. Often used coming off screens in college, Muhammad was able to create for himself and hopes to flourish in a more wide-open game.

“I think I’m the hardest worker. I try to stay in the gym all the time and work on my skills and I couldn’t really show a lot. It was a lot of limitations at UCLA,” Muhammad said. “There’s so much jitters about me, good and bad and people don’t really know. It’s interesting. Some guys have me in the range of top 10, top 5. I don’t know where I’m going go. Fifteen?”

The Wizards would like to add another scorer to complement John Wall and Bradley Beal and Muhammad believes he could be a fit in Washington. The lefty already has a solid NBA frame, decent strength and an aggressive style. He didn’t put the ball on the floor much at UCLA, but said he has always had the ability to create for himself off the dribble.

“Being drafted is great, but I’m not satisfied being drafted. I want to be an NBA all-star and help my team win,” Muhammad said. “That’s what it’s all about, is winning. I’m a competitor. …People said a lot about me being selfish and stuff like that. Getting into the league, I can’t wait to shut that down. I’m a guy who wants to play and to win and love my teammates.

“I’m not cocky at all. You ask anybody, I’m one of the nicest guy,” he said. “I try to be as humble as I can but if you work hard sometimes you know that you earned more respect.”

Muhammad took the same approach to the combine that he does on the court – by attacking concerns head on. “In the NBA, you can’t run from guys,” he said. “I think a lot of teams were surprised by my interviews, how nice and well-spoken I am as a player and as a person. I’m a guy who wants to learn.”

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Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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