Shabazz Muhammad's knack for generating worrisome headlines has followed him from college to the pros, but even with his lengthy history of bad press, it's still far too early to write the rookie off.
The latest blunder, a dismissal from the NBA's Rookie Transition Program, is much more deserving of an eye roll than it is a high-and-mighty condemnation. According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Muhammad got the boot from the league's seminar after getting caught with a woman in his hotel room.
Granted, it's probably not a good idea to start an NBA career by breaking a rule (however stupid said rule might be) at a symposium on how not to break the rules. But it's not like Muhammad set the building on fire.
Viewed in isolation, Muhammad's transgression wouldn't be much of an issue. But thanks to a brief collegiate career that was marked by scandal, bad influences and surprisingly poor play, he has some work to do to repair his reputation.
The Hype Machine Giveth and Taketh Away
Muhammad was among the most decorated players of his high school class, earning nods as both the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball USA after his senior season at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.
Highly recruited, the 6'6" wing opted for UCLA over Duke and Kentucky. His decision generated plenty of buzz in Westwood, but there was trouble before Muhammad played even a single game for the Bruins.
According to Peter Yoon of ESPN:
Muhammad, the national high school player of the year last year and the top recruit in a UCLA class rated No. 1 in the country, was found to have accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to two NCAA-member schools, the NCAA statement said.
Those visits were to Duke and North Carolina and were paid for by a family friend, [Benjamin] Lincoln, a source unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter said. The friend, a financial advisor, is the brother of an assistant coach of Muhammad's high school team in Las Vegas.
Declared ineligible, Muhammad missed the first three games of the season.
The suspension looked bad, but like so many of Muhammad's later missteps, it wasn't totally his fault. Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, had arranged the visits in question and even claimed to have gotten clearance from the NCAA for Lincoln to pay for travel expenses.
After a messy saga that revealed an NCAA investigator (Abigail Grantstein, who was fired shortly after the investigation) might have had it out for Muhammad, he was allowed to rejoin the team.
So Muhammad got a little improper financial help in his recruiting journey (what top prospect doesn't?) and might have been unfairly targeted for something his father and an agent cooked up in the first place. He probably wasn't a totally ignorant victim, but he was hardly the criminal mastermind in the scenario either.
Age Ain't Nothing But a Number
In an article for the Los Angeles Times on March 22, 2013, Ken Bensinger reported that Muhammad was actually a year older than everyone thought.
Caught in a lie, Muhammad's father (whom Bensinger's article paints as a pretty calculating villain) changed his story a handful of times and eventually reached out to Bensinger in a couple of text messages that contained—at least—the hint of a bribe.
The story didn't go away, and Muhammad now claims to have never tried to mislead anyone about his age.
Just a couple of months away from the NBA draft, Muhammad could credibly make the claim that he had grown up a lot in a short period of time, as he was now suddenly 20 years old instead of 19. He probably shouldn't have gone along with the lie, but chances are that it had been part of his life for a long time.
Nobody knows exactly when Muhammad lost that extra year, but Bensinger credibly posits that Holmes may have started it long ago in an effort to give his son a physical edge against younger, less developed competition.
Yet again, Muhammad probably wasn't totally innocent, but he may not have had the option to come clean.
The Only Red Flag That Matters
Putting aside the NCAA investigation and the revelation about his age, the only real problem Muhammad has coming into his rookie season is the fact that he put together a severely underwhelming freshman year at UCLA.
Sure, he was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team and earned honors as co-Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. But his empty scoring average of 17.9 points per game on 44 percent shooting and startling inability to defend were major problems.
There's not much room in the NBA for slow-footed, relatively unathletic wings who don't defend. So if there's a real concern about Muhammad's makeup that could curtail his NBA career, it has nothing to do with his off-court shenanigans—and everything to do with his game.
The Overblown Will Blow Over
Muhammad is going to be on a short leash in Minnesota because of his reputation. And fair or not, if he doesn't impress on the court, it's going to be much harder for him to get critics to forget his checkered off-court past.
In other words, all of the silly, overblown hoopla surrounding his relatively minor mistakes will disappear if Muhammad can put the ball in the basket.
People will come to realize that as a young (although not so young as once thought) player with some pretty manipulative people around him, Muhammad wasn't solely responsible for what happened to him in college.
But he's in control now. So if he's going to reverse the course of his career, Muhammad had better get himself into the gym in a hurry.