In the third edition of “Freshman Prospects Before New Year's”, I explore UCLA’s standout freshman Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad came to UCLA as the most highly touted recruit not named Nerlens Noel.

On top of being investigated and suspended by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits, Shabazz Muhammad was slowed by lingering shoulder and ankle injuries coming into this season. As a result, much of his early season production for UCLA has been more indicative of his time off from basketball, and thereby is less relevant in assessing his prospects as a future professional athlete. With that said, some information can be gleaned from his play early on, particularly if one takes into account the fact that he is/was out of shape.

First, it must be noted that Muhammad makes his greatest impact scoring the basketball. He has a variety of moves that should translate at the next level, and his outside shooting- which had been the subject of much criticism during his high school days- has shown some promise early on. Even with his injuries, he has managed to post the 17th best Offensive Rating in the country for those with usage on at least 28 percent of their team’s possessions. 

Muhammad is effective offensively due to his prowess as a slasher. Standing at a solid 6’6, 223 lbs, Muhammad possesses elite strength for the collegiate level. On top of his brute force maneuvering towards the basket, Muhammad also has a 6’11 wingspan, which allows him to get his shot off in a variety of ways and shoot runners over defenders. While he did not show it early on, Muhammad does have a fairly quick first step and long enough strides to get to the basket in a hurry. He is a good vertical athlete is well, capable of finishing demoralizing dunks out in transition.

In addition to his physical tools, Muhammad does a nice job angling his body to shield the ball in order to finish at the rim. He attacks the body of shot blockers and draws fouls at a high rate. Specifically, he currently is averaging 6.3 fouls drawn per contest, which is the 73rd highest total in the nation. And, because of his superior physical profile, he is capable of finishing through contact at both this level and in the NBA. With that said, Muhammad must do a better job of keeping the ball high and not showing it on some of his drives. This bad tendency has enabled defenders to disrupt his offensive fluidity, by either tying him up or temporarily deflecting the ball. 

And while Muhammad does have a serviceable enough handle, this area of his game could use some improvement. For starters, he only drives with his left hand. This allows defenders to angle him whichever way they want. For instance, early in the season when he was still out of shape, defenders were able to force him into difficult jump shots by cutting off the lane. With that said, Muhammad is typically strong with the basketball. He is effective on straight line drives to the hoop and is able to find and create seams in the defense. He implements an occasional Euro step, which is obviously most effective when he is out in transition. Overall, Muhammad must work to develop a more advanced handle so that he can create his shot off the dribble more effectively and not be so predictable off the bounce.

It is clear that Muhammad’s handle alone is not what makes him such a dynamic slasher. What allows him, then, to get in the lane and attack the basket apart from his overwhelming physical profile is the threat that he will pull up and utilize his solid in between game. When attacking the basket, Muhammad is capable of stopping on a dime and elevating over his defender for an open jump shot. He has a fairly quick release and his stroke continues to improve. Additionally, Muhammad does not always have to get all the way to the rim. Instead, he implements an effective running left hander in the lane, which freezes his defender and allows him enough room to get his shot off.

In terms of his decision making with the ball in his hands, Muhammad makes winning plays and willingly finds open teammates on the break. Still, his passing ability must be kept in context. Muhammad is a pure scorer who does not usually create for his teammates. Another area in which Muhammad must progress is with his shot selection. When he was struggling early in the season prior to dropping 15 lbs, Muhammad shot far too many contested mid range jumpers. In one-on-one situations, he is creative enough to get his shot off against virtually anyone at the college level. This means that he will often settle for difficult shots. In particular, he has a tendency to shoot a spinning, turnaround jumper to create separation from his defender.  On this specific move, he does a nice job of squaring his body. However, while many players at the next level utilize such moves, Muhammad must come to realize that this is not the best shot selection, particularly for someone who is still improving as a shooter.  Also, whenever Muhammad secures the ball on the offensive glass, he looks to put the ball back in, even when he is facing a double or triple team. In these instances, Muhammad must learn to kick the ball out and reset the offense.

While he is still coming into his own as a shooter, Muhammad is beginning to develop his long range shooting stroke. In early action, he has connected on 47.8 percent of his 23 attempts from three. While this is not a large sample size, Muhammad shows some promise coming off of screens. He curls baseline and is able to adequately use screens to free himself. When he is in the position to shoot, Muhammad does a nice job of squaring his body to the basket. He must continue to progress in these sets if he hopes to add a new wrinkle to his offensive game.

Further, due to his physical profile, Muhammad projects as a guard who can post up at the next level. When he gets the ball in the post at UCLA, he does a nice job of backing his man down and overpowering him for a basket. When UCLA isolates him in the post, Muhammad maneuvers quickly and usually is able to avoid the help. In spite of these strengths, Muhammad must do a better job of sealing his man on the block. He currently struggles to secure deep post position against lengthy players, and this was particularly evident in his matchups against Jamaal Franklin and Otto Porter. In those contests, Muhammad permitted these longer players to get their hands in the passing lanes and prevent the catch.  

Muhammad’s other greatest strength is his high motor. While it was impaired early in the season due to his poor conditioning, Muhammad’s motor separates him as a prospect, as he is extremely active on both ends of the floor. This manifests itself on the offensive glass, in particular, where he ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in Offensive Rebounding Percentage, almost unheard of for a collegiate guard. Muhammad has a nose for the ball, and he collects rebounds all over the floor. He possesses decent box out fundamentals and his superior strength allows him to outmuscle bigger players at times. Muhammad also usually turns these offensive rebounds into tip in and putback opportunities. So even when his jumper is not falling, Muhammad is still able to score on sheer hustle alone. Further, Muhammad regularly beats his man down the floor and he converts this hustle into easy layup opportunities. Even when he does not receive the ball, he is often the first player back and generally plays with a lot of energy.

Muhammad’s high motor also translates on the defensive end of the floor. While he could still stand to improve on this end, he has done a nice job of cheating screens and staying with his man in recent action. Muhammad has decent lateral quickness and is strong enough to move players off of their spot. He has done a nice job of playing solid positional defense without fouling, committing only 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes (24th in the Pac-12). With this in mind, Muhammad has done a poor job of recovering after he is beat off the dribble. He must do a better job of angling his man to the help. Muhammad has also, at times, slacked on close out opportunities, but I expect that this was due to his conditioning more than anything. Moreover, Muhammad must work harder to secure defensive positioning on post ups, and not try to cheat and overplay the post entry feed every time.

In summary, Shabazz Muhammad is one of the most dynamic scoring options in the country. He currently takes 31.5 percent of his team’s shots when he is on the floor and does a nice job of creating extra possessions on the glass. Muhammad projects as a high energy slasher with a developing mid and long range game. As the season progresses, look for him to improve considerably and become one of the nation’s most un-guardable weapons, not to mention a surefire top-5 NBA draft pick.