Shabazz Muhammad has come as advertised to UCLA. The highly touted No.1 recruit has been an offensive machine since being unshackled from an NCAA investigation that had him sidelined for the Bruins’ first three games.
While there is still room for improvement in his game, the 6’6” guard/forward has proven to be the real deal. He can flat-out score and has been clutch for the Bruins, especially in a key overtime win over then-No. 7 Missouri.
Earlier this season, I ranked UCLA’s Top 10 freshmen of all-time, with one-and-done Bruin Kevin Love topping the list. With Muhammad on pace to be the top-scoring Bruins freshman of all time, will we be anointing him the best freshman of all time after this season?
Of course such evaluations can only properly be made at the end of Muhammad’s freshman season. We’ll tally up the stats, think of the relative influence he had on the team, and think long and hard about where he ranks amongst the greatest freshmen in Bruins history.
However, after 12 games in true blue and gold, we know what kind of player Muhammad is.
In his dozen games as a Bruin, the Las Vegas native is averaging 19.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, scoring no less than 13 points in every game and registering over 20 points in six games, including a 27-point performance against Missouri.
By comparison, at this stage in Love’s freshmen season, he was averaging 16.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, eventually averaging a double-double at 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
In his impressive freshman season, Love posted double figures in scoring every game and subsequently became UCLA’s all-time leader in double-figure scoring games in an individual season (39—Editor’s note: UCLA typically played 30 games or less until the 2005-06 season) and sixth all-time in season double-doubles (23).
Now, stop. Do you think Muhammad is capable of etching his name in such records?
He may be capable of ranking high on some scoring-related achievements but there is no chance that he’ll post many double-doubles, as the hybrid forward/guard role he’s playing under Ben Howland’s system limits his rebounds on the offensive glass.
Nevertheless, what distances him further from exceeding Love as the best player in UCLA basketball history doesn’t lie in the stats (although it is conveniently backed up by them).
What Muhammad lacks is the ability to be a team player and make his teammates better.
He has demonstrated how great of a scorer he is, but he is more of a one-man show. He’s a star, but not a player than can carry a team. Sure, he can hit clutch shots as he did in the Missouri game, but can he find a teammate for an open shot?
In his 12 games at UCLA, Muhammad has recorded 10 assists and is second on the team in total shot attempts despite having played three fewer games than the rest of the Bruins’ starting lineup.
Nearly every time he touches the ball on offense, he shoots.
Yes, you want him shooting the ball and posting 27 points in a game is an impressive feat in college basketball but not if you take 19 shot attempts to get there.
In Love’s highest-scoring regular-season games of his freshman season in which he scored 26 and 27 points, it took him no more than 12 shot attempts to do so and he still managed to dish out four assists in the 27-point game.
Yes, Love had the likes of more talented teammates like Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Ship and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on his team—which could explain his fewer shot attempts and more assists relative to Muhammad—but he was generally a better teammate than Muhammad has been thus far.
When have you seen Muhammad dish a ball to an open Jordan Adams on the perimeter? When have you seen him elevate for a shot only to redirect to a pass in mid-air?
Will Shabazz be the best freshman in UCLA's history?
Sure, he’ll score plenty of baskets and high-flying tomahawks dunks that will rile the crowd and may even be the highest-scoring Bruins freshman of all time, but he’ll never be the best freshman in UCLA history at this rate.
College basketball is a five-man game, and talented as Muhammad is, he only plays for one.
There’s a distinction between carrying a team and taking it over and if Muhammad is to become the best freshman in UCLA basketball history, he’ll have to decipher that distinction—and master it.