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What to expect from Shabazz Muhammad

11/19/2012

Honestly, I couldn't care less about college realignment right now, and not just because I'm burned out on the entire topic. I also really don't want to talk about college realignment because, frankly, there are more interesting things happening today -- chief among them the debut of UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad.

Muhammad, as you no doubt heard, was reinstated this weekend after a protracted and occasionally ugly eligibility mess, and now joins the rest of UCLA's vaunted freshman class -- Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Tony Parker -- as unquestionably its best player and brightest star.

But there are other questions. What skills, exactly, will Muhammad bring? Just how good is he, anyway? And will he turn UCLA's team from an apparently improved and talented bunch to an elite, national title contender?

One thing's for sure: Muhammad is going to score. It's where his greatest strengths on the basketball court lie. We say that about a lot of guys, and it can occasionally be a cover-all term used to deflect from the fact that a player doesn't play great defense, or pass the ball well, or make his teammates better. "Oh, he's just a pure scorer." But in Muhammad's case it's just plain true. Watch any clip you like, or review his somewhat insane high school stats if you please. What you end up with is a player that beats people off the dribble, gets to the rim, and scores. He has also already mastered the long-lost art of the mid-range game, with one-handed floaters and two-handed pull-ups in that 10-to-15-foot sweet spot between perimeter defenders and the low block.

Muhammad is also a dominant transition scorer. It may be his best skill. His size and ballhandling and understanding of angles and desire to attack the rim at all times make him utterly ruthless in the open floor. He's not as bulky, and maybe not quite as fast, but think James Harden. The similarities go much deeper than the left hand. For a team that is already playing a fair amount of fast-break basketball -- unusually enough for a Ben Howland team, transition accounts for 18.7 percent of UCLA's possessions to date this season, most of any play type according to Synergy -- the thought of unleashing Muhammad for 94 feet must be totally thrilling.

Of course, Harden is a dominant NBA guard because he is so much more than a gifted scorer around the rim. He is one of the league's best playmakers, and a lethal long-range shooter. These are the aspects of Muhammad's game -- plus defense -- that still require proof, particularly on the college level. We know he'll get buckets. But will he dominate other areas of the game, too?

To be sure, this was already a good team, albeit one that was still feeling itself out, before Muhammad's eligibility. The least-touted member of the freshman class, Adams, has been the team's best player so far; the Wear Twins are playing reliable post minutes; Anderson is still figuring it out, but his sheer length and skill are undeniable. Putting Muhammad into this mix is sure to improve the Bruins further. The question is, how much? We'll start to get some answers Monday night.