- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Shabazz Muhammad has been making appearances in "SportsCenter" highlights for more than a year, but the latest one really caught him off guard.
Normally, UCLA's Muhammad is highlighted for what he does on the court -- a dunk, a 3-point basket or a spin move to a basket. Last Thursday, however, the highlights pointed out something he didn't do. Namely, he didn't make the game-winning shot against Washington despite clamoring for the ball in the waning seconds, and then he didn't join his team in celebration after Larry Drew II won the game for the Bruins with a buzzer-beating jumper.
It served as a reminder for Muhammad, no stranger to scrutiny because of his status as one of the nation's top freshmen and a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft, that his every move is under the microscope.
"I was pretty surprised, actually," Muhammad said of ESPN's flagship show calling out his actions at the end of the Washington game. "Like I said, it's L.A., so that's something you have to abide by. In L.A., anything you do they're watching, so you just have to be smart. Just people in general are watching."
It's not just in L.A. anymore. The nation has been watching Muhammad since day one of this season when he sat on the bench in a sweat suit because the NCAA hadn't concluded its investigation into his eligibility. Finally cleared, his early play became the subject of criticism, as he struggled to get back into game shape.
Finally strong, Muhammad led the Bruins to an upset victory at Arizona. He scored 23 points in that game, but the big story the next day was the Gucci backpack he wore after it. Then came the Washington incident in which Muhammad became labeled a selfish player. To his credit, he's taking it all in stride.
"When you're a big player and you're in the limelight all the time, you have to expect that," Muhammad said. "We're in L.A., we're in Hollywood, there's a lot of stuff that goes on and you just have to be smart because you know everybody is watching. ... People can watch me nationally now as a college player, so it's really hard to do what you want to do, so you really have to abide by the rules."
Muhammad isn't the only star recruit on UCLA's team this season, but for some reason the scrutiny and criticism gravitates toward him. Kyle Anderson was a top-five recruit who also underwent an NCAA investigation this season and also wore a designer backpack in Arizona, but nobody really talks much about him.
Anderson leads the team in rebounding but is averaging 9.4 points a game and was shooting a paltry 31.1 percent from the field during a recent five-game stretch in which UCLA lost three games. That slump flew under the radar, but when Muhammad asks for the ball and doesn't get it, it becomes national news even in a UCLA victory.
"Anytime you're the No. 1 player in the country -- and he's a top-10 pick in the NBA draft right now -- anytime you have that, you have so much more scrutiny because you have so much more interest," coach Ben Howland said. "And for everything that he's dealt with in terms of all that attention and all that scrutiny at such a young age, because of where social media is now and because of the interest in college basketball, to me it's just amazing how humble he is and what a great kid he is."
It's true. Muhammad is a pretty stand-up guy. All season, he has stood up and answered questions about all the mini-controversies that have cropped up. He never has ducked any issues, never tried to make excuses and says he actually enjoys talking to the media. He has shown a level of maturity that makes it easy to forget he's still just 18 years old.
"If something is good and bad, you just have to continue to stay focused and stay humble, which I try to do all the time," Muhammad said. "It's something that I'm really getting used to and I'm just going to keep trying to play as hard as I can and work it out."
His reaction after the Washington game, he reiterated, was blown out of proportion. He said he didn't want to risk an injury to himself or one of his teammates by jumping in the pile and said he congratulated Drew after the postgame handshakes with Washington. He later sent a tweet congratulating Drew.
"I don't worry about my image," Muhammad said. "It was blown out of proportion. I know I'm a good teammate to my team."
And what about his stat line, which points to him being a bit of a selfish player? He has only 19 assists in 21 games this season. David Wear, in 122 fewer minutes, has more rebounds, assists and blocked shots than Muhammad, and the same number of steals. Muhammad was brought in to be a scorer first, but at some point he has to develop other parts of his game if he wants NBA scouts to notice, doesn’t he?
"I'm trying to win games," he said. "If you win games, the NBA scouts will come."
And, Muhammad said, he is willing to do whatever it takes to win those games.
"I think I can facilitate, too," Muhammad said. "If some guy is open, I'm going to give the extra pass. There's no problem with that. ... If I don't look for the open guy, that looks bad on me. I'm just trying to win. I could care less about scoring. I'm an aggressive scorer, but I'm going to look for the open guy if they're open."
If he doesn't, it'll probably wind up on "SportsCenter."
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