The Missing Piece: Scouting Shabazz

Published: April 13, 2013

When scouts, GM’s, fans, coaches, and media really start to shift their focus to the NBA Draft, no player will be more polarizing than Shabazz Muhammad. Nearly every mock draft heading into the college basketball season had Muhammad as either the #1 or #2 pick, but since then he has had be mired in contraversy. He had to serve a suspension to begin the season due to eligibility issues, then he was accused of being a bad teammate and castrated by Bruins fans after an incident in which his teammate hit a game winner and he sulked afterwards because he didn’t get the game winning shot. And finally came the story last month where he and his father lied about Muhammad’s age and where he was born.

On the court, Muhammad had moments of brilliance, but he definitely was not the superstar that everybody was expecting. He ranked in the top five in the Pac -12 in several major categories, but he didn’t take a very talented team to the next level, and you can even argue that he was the primary reason that his coach, Ben Howland, was fired last month. Even with all this baggage, teams will still be intrigued with Muhammad because guys who can score in bunches will always be valued in the NBA.

With just two games remaining, it looks like the Hornets are most likely to be picking in the range where Shabazz is projected to go, and he does fill some glaring holes for the team at a position of need. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Muhammad’s game on the court to see if he is worth the trouble.


Muhammad’s game is nothing like the perimeter scorers you have seen come into the league over the last ten years or so. He has a very old school game, as he rarely scores off of isolations or in the pick and roll game. According to DraftExpress, only 6% of his points this season came via P&R or isolation. Instead, Muhammad is a guy who loves to curl off screens, post up, or crash the boards on the offensive end. He is also a fantastic scorer in transition and off of spot-ups. Depending on what a team wants, that can either be a great thing or a reason to avoid him in the draft. If a team wants a guy who will dominate the ball and create his own offense, then Muhammad is not the guy. But if you just need Muhammad to be a complimentary piece that can play off of others, then he is fantastic in that setting.

While Muhammad isn’t a terrific shooter, he is better than most expected him to be this early in his career. In high school, he had a solid mid-range jump shot, but he didn’t have three-point range. This year at UCLA he took more than three treys per game and shot a respectable percentage (37.7%). His form looks great when he spots up, but when he is trying to create his own three off the dribble, he often lacks balance and shoots a terrible percentage as a result. Overall, Muhammad is a very good finisher at the rim, usually getting there after he comes off a curl or after an offensive rebound. Of all the perimeter players in this draft, only Victor Oladipo is better as an offensive rebounder. That is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because it could prove invaluable on the offensive end to have another elite offensive rebounder, but discouraging because he doesn’t put the same effort in on the defensive glass. Shabazz actually had more offensive rebounds than defensive this year, a feat that is unmatched by any other starter in the Pac-12. But we’ll touch on that more when we get to the defensive side of the ball. The other thing Muhammad does at a high level is get to the free throw line. He averaged just under six free throws per game this season, and he also has the strength to finish in the lane when he is being fouled.

Well there is a lot to like offensively, there are some worries. First and foremost, he has no desire to make his teammates better. He averaged less than an assist per game this season, including 14 games where he did not have a single assist. Most guys who play that many minutes get an assist or two just by accident. Muhammad had 14 games in which he didn’t have one. Remarkable. The other concern is that some of the things that Muhammad does well might be negated by playing against bigger defenders in the pros. He loves to post up, but in the NBA he will be an undersized small forward, making that an unlikely option for him. He also gets nearly four points per game off of going back up after an offensive rebound, but will he be as dominant on the glass playing small forward in the pros?

NBA Offensive Comparison: Richard Hamilton/Corey Maggette hybrid

Imagine Hamilton’s ability to score coming off screens with Maggette’s physicalness and ability to get to the line at will. This is Muhammad’s ceiling offensively, and that combination could easily produce 18-22 points per night when he hits his prime. What that combination will not produce is a ton of assists, and Muhammad will likely never be an elite three-point threat. But Hamilton was the most consistent and reliable scorer on a championship team, and Muhammad could be that if he is surrounded by guys who can do all of the other things that it takes to win basketball games.


Shabazz Muhammad averaged three blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds per game – COMBINED. Let that sink in for a minute. There are games when even the best scorers in the world are off, but the great players still find a way to impact a game. How is Muhammad going to do that when he doesn’t pass the ball and he cant get rebounds, blocks, or steals? It is incredibly frustrating, because as I have pointed out, he is a tremendous offensive rebounder, in large part because of the effort he puts in on that end of the floor. Unfortunately, he does not always give that effort on the defensive end of the floor.

If you are being as generous to Muhammad as possible, you might be able to excuse his inability to generate steals this year. His coach, Ben Howland, does not let his players gamble by aggressively playing the passing lane. Several players from that program have seen their steal rate rise dramatically in the pros after being given more freedom, so maybe, just maybe, we can excuse that. But what is the excuse for a 6’6″ athletic specimen with a 6’11” wingspan only getting 4 blocks TOTAL this season? I’ve got nothing. Again, like we talked about with the assists, a guy who is on the court that much should get a couple by accident. Let me put it this way, Mugsy Bogues had three in his junior year in college in three fewer games. Mugsy Bogues. Heck, Nate Wolters had four blocks this season. There is no excuse for Muhammad here.

His effort on the defensive glass is a big part of the reason that I have referred to him as the small forward version of Eric Gordon in the past. He shows no desire to crash the glass defensively and help his team to gain possession. If New Orleans were to draft Muhammad with a long term plan of putting him and Gordon at the two and three, then the other three guys on the court better be elite defensive rebounders for their position. In 13 out of 32 games this season, Muhammad grabbed one or fewer defensive rebounds. Not good.

As a man to man defender and a help defender, Muhammad is very good. He has a great combination of strength, length, and quickness, and because of that, he can stay in front of guys and make up a lot of ground quickly on rotations. On games where he is locked in, you can argue that he was one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Not surprisingly, he was only really locked in during games in which he also happened to get a lot of touches on the offensive end. So, if you are not actively getting Muhammad involved on the offensive end, you might as well pencil his guy in for 15-20 points on the other end. So, putting it all together, on a night where Muhammad is off, not only are you going to get nothing in the blocks, steals, rebounds, and assists column, but you are going to get bad defense too.

Comparison: Bobby Simmons floor, Michael Kidd-Gilchrest Ceiling

This is where Muhammad’s legacy will be decided. Barring injury, he will be a a very good scorer in the NBA, but if he dedicates himself on defense and reaches his potential, he can be a perennial All-Star. Bobby Simmons, Muhammad, and MKG all have very similar measureables and athleticism. Simmons had games where he was locked in defensively and games where he just drifted. MKG gives his all on that end of the court every single play. Both had the ability to guard multiple positions because of length, quickness, and strength, but one gives it all every play and the other took far too many plays off to reach his potential. Which one will Muhammad become? On the court, that is the million dollar question with Muhammad.


I hate speculating about this stuff. With the on the court stuff, I can pour through the stats and watch the tape over and over. I can look at the scheme they played in and who they played against and project how they will do in the league. The mental stuff, how they associate with their teammates, and how they interact with their coaches – all those things are so important, but how can I possibly properly evaluate that? I am not going to fall into the trap of thinking that I know everything about Muhammad’s mental makeup because I read a couple of news clips. I’m not going to paint the kid with a broad brush because he made a few mistakes. If every mistake I made as a teenager was documented and none of the good things were reported (because they won’t get the page views), then I could have come across as the worst person in the world. We’re too smart to do that to this kid.

But what I will say is that more times than not, when there are this many reports, the player does not avoid contraversy for the remainder of his career. It usually rears its ugly head again. But sometimes these reports are just exaggerations, meant to satisfy the thirst of readers and viewers in this 24 hour sports news cycle. Remember all the reports from Chad Ford about how Austin Rivers teammates didn’t like him and how he was a diva who could tear a locker room apart? Have we seen even one iota of that since he arrived, or has it been pretty much the exact opposite?

There is smoke, and there might be fire, but I caution those who might just take everything they read as fact and label the kid as a punk or a diva or a locker room cancer if they have never even met the kid. I have also seen some say that since his father is a bit of a headcase, that the son will be as well, but if every NBA player were a reflection of their father, this would be a league full of degenerates. Making a judgement without a solid foundation of knowledge is the definition of ignorance and I am not going to fall into that trap. Dell will assuredly do his due diligence and if he picks the kid, it will only be because he is satisfied with everything in this department. That’s all we really have to know about these particular red flags.

What it All Means For the Hornets

Having a guy who can score in such a unique number of ways could be invaluable for New Orleans moving forward. I can’t remember the last guy we had who could curl off of screens in the half court and either take it to the bucket or knock down the open mid-range shot, depending on what the defense does. We saw Monty use Xavier Henry on this kind of action a few times in the Lakers game and it worked beautifully. Imagine what he could do with a talent like Muhammad in that spot.

Muhammad would also give the Hornets their first one-man fast break option since Baron Davis. Muhammad is so crafty in the open court, able to both elevate and flush it or use a Euro step to get to the bucket if defenders are ahead of him. He also has the length and strength to finish in transition and the ball handling to take it coast to coast if he has to. You can just imagine an Anthony Davis block that richochets out to the perimeter, into Shabazz Muhammad’s hands, where he takes it to the hole for an ‘and one’. Could be a thing of beauty.

Offensively, he would play beautifully alongside Eric Gordon. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to create shots for himself, so Gordon and the other guard can fill that role while Muhammad comes off screens or post-ups on occassion. The problem is that you need to get Shabazz his shots or he will be disinterested on defense, and pretty much worthless everywhere else, so that could take away shots from guys who are more efficient. But think of Rip Hamilton in Detroit. The Pistons had Billups, Hamilton, and Prince. Over their run, Hamilton got about 14 shots per game, Billups 12, and Prince 10. That would be the kind of dynamic you would need in New Orleans, with the point guard playing the role of Prince, deferring to the other two unless he had the matchup. A guy like Eric Bledsoe, for instance would look fantastic next to Gordon and Muhammad, as he could defer on offense and make up for the rebounds, blocks, and steals on defense.

No matter what happens, if the ‘Big Five’ are off the board, Dell Demps is going to have a bit of a problem on his hands. You can make the case for 5 or 6 different guys in that scenario, but none of them, including Muhammad, is without glaring faults. Anthony Bennett is a lazy defender and plays the one position you are loaded at. Cody Zeller doesn’t have the length to protect the rim and his upside is limited. Trey Burke doesn’t give you what you want defensively at the point guard position. Alex Len has high bust potential because of his raw offensive skill set and his average rebounding numbers. CJ McCollum is coming off an injury and is too similar in what he does to Austin Rivers. I can go on and on.

Shabazz Muhammad is in that conversation, like it or not. He’s a guy that most fans would have jumped at the chance at getting just a few short months ago, but now most are scared off by, rightly so. His game has huge holes and his character has been brought into question. If the perfect guy was still on the board, the choice would be easy, but more likely than not, Dell will instead be trying to find the guy with the holes that are easiest to plug up. Some of Muhammad’s holes are easy to plug if he has the right supporting cast around him, but if the off-the-court demons are real, almost nothing can be done about that. High risk, high reward doesn’t do the case of Shabazz Muhammad justice. It’s way more than that, but some team will have to take that chance and it just might be the Pelicans.

The Missing Piece is a weekly feature that you can find every Saturday only on For past pieces in the series, click here.



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