Shabazz Muhammad certainly would sail against the prevailing current if he chose to hold himself out of the National Basketball Association draft and play a second year of college basketball for UCLA. But if he was thinking about the overall strengths and weaknesses of his game, he would be smart to stay.
Muhammad would not likely improve his overall draft position with a second season. He is projected, in an exceptionally shallow draft, to be a Lottery Pick, most likely within the first five selections. Being taken there covers you in glory, puts your name immediately on the marquee in front of the arena, and adds several millions to your bank account; but there is much expected of you in return.
From the rather small 24 game sample Muhammad has produced at amateur basketball's highest level, there have come several important questions regarding what he will be able to accomplish professionally with his current skill set.
There certainly are tangible benefits to building a formidable college resume, and several of the NBA's most successful players, from Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 70s and 80s, to Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade in the 90s and 00s, became household names, excellent players, and more mature men while putting in multiple year apprenticeships at school.
With the precedent of polished college players in mind, what follows are the elements of Muhammad's game he could—and should—improve with a second year at UCLA, and with them make himself a better professional teammate both immediately and in the long term.
There have been multiple open floor, transition possessions when the ball has gone to Shabazz Muhammad with a defensive player scrambling to get in front of him, and the play ended in a bewildering charge called against Muhammad.
Several of them have been borderline embarrassing and revealed a surprising lack of technique and polished skill in the open floor.
Muhammad has shown awkward feet and poor body control in transition when he has had to go past a man near the rim. There is no euro step, no step around, no quick-stop jump shot and very little assist to his game in the open floor.
In fact, he averages one assist per game on the season. In the open floor Muhammad has looked like the proverbial bull in a china shop, when he has needed finesse, touch or court vision instead.
Small forwards in the NBA—like Lebron James, Andre Iguodola and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—are too big and athletic to get bulled over by Muhammad, and they will chew up his straight ahead open floor game, because Muhammad—while long with a 6'11'' wing span—is not a great or explosive leaper.
But he will definitely be called upon to fill the wing on the break, and he will be paid to put the ball through the hoop from those spots.
An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times' sports section back in December highlighted this. Ron Holmes, Muhammad's father, Jaque Hill and Don Corfino—all three former basketball players at USC—began taking Muhammad into the gym for intensive blocks of skill work.
"Some late-night sessions lasted into the early morning as they focused on footwork, moving without the ball, mid-range shooting, how to beat a defender off the dribble and more.
"There's nothing that can substitute for experience, and I think the three of us have a little more than Shabazz," Carfino said for the article.
"They each felt that Muhammad was struggling in part because he was trying to play in college as he did in high school: by bulling through weaker, smaller opponents rather than outplaying them."
Muhammad will find abundant opportunities with another high scoring, running team in his sophomore season at UCLA, to add serious adornment to a transition game he will need on a nightly basis in professional basketball.
Shabazz Muhammad has a strong on ball handle while he is charging to his left, and a fair arsenal of two way moves in the low-post and the mid-range to send the ball toward its target.
But Muhammad is not an excellent ball handler, struggles to shake defenders off the dribble, rarely drives or finishes with his right hand, and has not shown an array of ball-in-hand misdirections or fakes from the set position when he has had the opportunity to drive past a defender.
Professional defensive specialists will frustrate and pigeon hole Muhammad if he does not develop more off the dribble with his off hand. While he shoots floaters reasonably well, and has a nice post presence with the sort of baby hook he shoots over both shoulders, the dribble game is essentially limited to a single direction.
Muhammad's limited shooting range at this point—discussed more in the next slide—combined with an underdeveloped weak-side handle—including both the dribble drive rim finish and the dribble drive pull-up—makes him more vulnerable than he should be as a professional scorer, which is what he will earn his paychecks doing in the NBA.
An off-season spent developing that handle in one-on-one scenarios, and between 30 and 39 games next season refining what he has learned against the best college players in America, will send Muhammad to the NBA more immediately ready to fill a rigidly defined role as a professional, and keep at bay those blood thirsty fans who expect an instant All Star in every lottery pick.
Shabazz Muhammad needs more of an arsenal in the half court offense if he is going to be a major scorer in the NBA, and that includes extending the range on that jump shot significantly. It also means adding more dynamics to the ways he can shoot it, including off the bounce from NBA three point range, and in the catch-and-shoot during regular sets.
At UCLA Muhammad shoots 45.9 percent from the floor, 43.2 percent from three and 72.8 percent from the free throw line. Those are solid numbers all around, the floor percentage especially, which he built primarily from finishing around the rim off of offensive rebounds, and using his array of mid-range and low post moves.
Right now, Muhammad's shooting range does not extend much beyond the college three point line at 20'9'', while the professionals shoot from 23'9'' around the arc and 22' from the corners. As a pure scorer in the NBA, Muhammad will have to be able to step out and shoot that long ball, or he will become a vulnerability to his team's floor spacing as athletic defenders sag off of him toward the paint.
At 6'6'', Muhammad will not be able sneak around underneath the basket on the offensive end as he does in college to collect rebounds over sleepy defenders for easy points. That is something a superior physical specimen can get away with at the lower levels, but not in the NBA, where the class of athleticism is at the top of the food chain at every position every night.
Muhammad has shown an ability to catch and shoot, but he will also need to develop the capacity to pull up for the NBA three ball, or be reliable enough to knock down the long one off of a ball reversal or pass.
This type of ability has opened up the interior for a player like James Harden—who Muhammad shares stylistic aspects with—beautifully. Harden, who passes much more than Muhammad, is averaging 26.4 points and 5.6 assists a game this season for the Houston Rockets. Harden averaged 20.1 points and 4.2 assists per game as a sophomore at Arizona State.
A statistic that should surprise anyone who thought Shabazz Muhammad played a tough all courts game is that on the season he has one more offensive rebound than defensive, at 62 to 61. This is startling evidence that Muhammad is an almost one track scoring machine and that he has not made the mental commitment to play defense for his team.
This might be troubling to NBA franchises, that Muhammad's college team at UCLA, which has suffered one of their worst rebounding seasons in 10 years under Coach Ben Howland, and Muhammad has not committed himself as the team's best overall player to mitigate the damage. Muhammad average 5.1 rebounds a game on average, when seven with a few more on the defensive side could have made a major difference.
Muhammad does not move especially well from side-to-side as a defender and can be consistently beaten off the dribble. Another year of strength and drill work in college could improve his quickness and general technique.
There is nothing Muhammad can do about his size, and he may be stuck guarding small forwards with several inches and significant pounds on him in the NBA, but he can become a smarter, more crafty defender with another year of coaching.
The overall defensive effort—from guarding man-to-man, helping teammates off the ball and rebounding—has not been there every night for a guy with a big energy motor everywhere else. Muhammad has also not looked especially comfortable or adept in a team defensive concept. Mediocre defenders can be hidden in the NBA, but they will be expected to play their role in a team scheme.
With a second season in Westwood, Muhammad can learn some of the humility and discipline that comes with buckling down for full possession on the defensive end, and staying home to rebound the ball for his teammates.
If anything, most of all, it will show NBA scouts and executives he is willing to put in his time at the end of the floor that values strength of character above everything else, where the very best NBA players, from Bill Russell to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James have all committed themselves to go full burn for their teammates.
Nobody has ever regretted staying in school if they played their team into a Final Four, which is the grandest setting in American basketball, and the reward for surviving the gauntlet of the NCAA Tournament, the most exciting event in American sport.
Shabazz Muhammad is going to get a taste of the tournament this year, and he and the rest of his freshman class are hoping to make a run, which the group made no secret of since announcing their intentions to play for UCLA.
The 2014 Final Four is set for Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That will be a record 100,000 people towering over the maple stage, and another 15 million or so watching on television, for Muhammad to show America what he can do.
That horizon presents an unmatchable platform for Muhammad to strive for, a place to demonstrate the will, drive, nerve, skill and leadership to take a basketball team to the college game's furthest outpost.
The Florida Gators team from 2007, which chose to come back en masse from their 2006 title run, earned a place in college basketball's Pantheon when they cut down the nets in Atlanta after their second consecutive national championship.
The UCLA teams that came before Shabazz, from the back-to-back squads of 1964 and '65, the seven in a row groups from 1967 through '73, have built something permanent to be remembered by. As did the 1974 team and the 1995 group, UCLA's last title team.
A national championship team at UCLA gets a banner hung in Pauley Pavilion, where ghosts of the most winning program in college basketball history wait to welcome them.
Many players, in fact, earn enduring fame from unforgettable performances in the tournament, whether their professional careers panned out or not. These players are too many to name, but they come back around every year with the spring, when the tournament heats up, for another day in the spotlight. I have never heard a player talk about a Final Four team with anything but the fondest memories.
National Championship squads stay connected for the rest of their lives. Muhammad has a chance to lead a team to dizzy heights, and if he is not locked into the idea of beginning his professional career as soon as possible, that is a memory and a place he will be able to go return to the rest of his life.