Driven to be the best
Shabazz Muhammad's enhanced workout, midnight sessions help him climb to No. 1
Shabazz Muhammad (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman) is not lacking in the genetics department. His mother played basketball and ran track at Long Beach State. His father was a basketball player at USC. Faye Muhammad and Ron Holmes aren't quite the Mannings when it comes to cranking out athletes, but they'll give them a run for their money.
The eldest of their three children, Asia, is a 20-year old professional tennis player. The youngest, Rashad, is a junior Division I basketball prospect. Then there's Shabazz, the standard-bearer for all wings in the 2012 class and ESPN's newly minted No. 1 prospect.
They're merely continuing the family bloodline. Stephone Paige, a former Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver who once owned the NFL record for most receiving yards in a single game, is Shabazz Muhammad's uncle. His cousins, the offspring of Paige, were college athletes in volleyball, track and field and football. Not even the Mannings have that kind of diversity in their portfolio.
The ascensionPlayers know the deal. They read the rankings, and, despite the denials of some, they follow recruiting and their peers closely. Though Muhammad is far less interested in it than most, entering the spring he had to know he was chasing Andre Drummond (Middletown, Conn./St. Thomas More) and Isaiah Austin (Arlington, Texas/Grace Prep) for the top spot in the senior class.
Asia Muhammad witnessed her brother lock in. She couldn't pick Drummond or Austin out of lineup, but she could see her brother focusing in on the top spot. "I think that's his competitive gene kicking in. He sees that as a competition. He wants to be better than all of them."
At the Pangos All-American Camp in June, the seed for Muhammad's ascension was planted. In a head-to-head matchup, Drummond handled Austin; he would handle him again in July. With one of the contenders eliminated, only Drummond stood in Muhammad's way.
At Pangos, there was something noticeably different about Muhammad. Ever the competitor, his game was ratcheted up a notch. Athleticism always has been his strength, but this was different. His explosive moves to the basket resulted in vicious dunks. He finished everything. There was more bounce than ever in his game, and his skill level was exceptionally sharp. In early June, Muhammad had chipped away at the leaderboard. The notion of a wing player surpassing Drummond and Austin had become plausible. Five weeks later, after a July showing that sealed the deal, Muhammad took over the spot. He'd earned the right -- heading into the season -- to be the class' standard-bearer.
Workout warriorSpend a few minutes talking to Muhammad and inevitably the subject of working out comes up. There's a healthy obsession to his appetite for gym time and his addiction to fitness. "I always think somebody else is probably working out more than one time a day so I have to work out three times a day to get all my work done," Muhammad said.
He's not quite obsessive compulsive, but he's in the neighborhood. Muhammad said guilt is a motivating factor. It creeps into his mind a lot and drives him, feeds his hunger to improve. The thought of someone getting a leg up on him lands him in the gym. "Nothing can stand in the way of when I'm wanting to work," he said. "I can't do anything else, I just want to work out and get it done."
During school, it's not uncommon for him to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and work out, go to school, work out after school and then come back to Gorman for a midnight shootaround. Muhammad said that his workouts got better -- and maybe more addictive -- when his family moved closer to Gorman. Once he had the key to the gym in his hands, it was nonstop.
"We have cameras everywhere here and nothing's a secret. When guys come into the gym, everything is card activated," said Bishop Gorman coach Grant Rice. "I've had a few meetings about making sure Muhammad's not in the gym too late when its closed up. We just have to make sure its not too many times after midnight."
Lots of guys work out, but Muhammad and his sister now have a personal trainer and there's a new emphasis on fitness and diet. His workouts are structured and specific to his needs and goals.
"It's now completely different," said Asia Muhammad. "We'd do fitness but we didn't actually have a personal trainer all the time just there for us, watching us. He's gotten so much bigger and I'll come back from a tournament and he's bigger again. He's always had that body, but he's getting bigger all time."
While firming up, Muhammad also has become ridiculously explosive. He always has been an athlete with fast-twitch muscles and quick reflexes. Now it's as if he's got a secret ingredient no one else has.
"Something boosted him toward the end of the season until now and from an explosion stand point there's a huge difference," Rice said.
The increased emphasis on fitness propelled his game to a level no other wing player has attained in this class.
What next?The cards are on the table. UCLA, Duke, Kentucky, UNLV, Kansas, Texas A&M and Memphis. One of them will sign Muhammad in November. Five of them will receive official visits. All of them will try to get him on campus at least one more time. He has set foot on each campus at least once, though his trip to Kansas was brief and came during an AAU tournament, nothing that was official.
At this point, you've probably figured out that Shabazz is a program changer. Four of the greatest programs in college basketball history earmarked him as a priority, which makes for a highly documented and public recruitment.
Muhammad has seen Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski chatting up Kobe and LeBron. He has watched the parade of draft picks roll through Kentucky and, despite a dad who played for USC, he's got UCLA high on his list. Texas A&M and Memphis are using relationships to hopefully get him on campus while Kansas, which isn't used to being the dark horse, turns up the heat. And then there's UNLV, the hometown program with a connection no one else has.
Rice's brother Dave is the new coach at UNLV and he's already making waves. The addition of Muhammad would send shock waves throughout the country.
The presence of Rice's brother in town isn't a daily topic for the coach and the star, at least not yet. The elephant in the room hasn't been as pervasive a topic as one might think.
"It really is strange," Muhammad said. "I didn't know his brother was going to get the job. Coach Rice doesn't talk much about UNLV to me. I think when school starts he's going to be asking me what I think about them. It's a pretty good thing for me, too, because I'll know about UNLV and that's a good thing."
Should he stay or could he go?"I think that's going to be one of those things I'll have to see it to believe it," Asia Muhammad said of her brother's likelihood of one day playing the NBA. "I know he's good enough. I'm kind of on that [professional] level so I can help him to stay humble. Others might be able to fill his head, but I'm going to tell him the truth."
The truth is Muhammad is staring down a brief stay in college, provided he makes it there at all. Though there isn't an end in sight, the NBA lockout will yield a new collective bargaining agreement. What happens if high school players are allowed to skip college and head to the league?
"I think I would consider it, but I'd also consider college," Muhammad said. "I know these college coaches are coming out to watch me play. You'd have to see where you are at on the board. Until that rule comes out, I'm worried about the colleges and communicating with them."
In Muhammad's mind, decisions like this take care of themselves. Put in the work, gauge your status and make an educated decision. It's getting that education and where it'll be that has fan bases captivated. Muhammad would like to decide, but it's August and he can't. "If I really knew what college I was going to, I could make the decision right now.
"I'll definitely take five visits, but I don't know about signing in the early period. If I'm unsure between two schools, I'd probably wait it out and see what school really wants you and which one to go to."
The freshman yearCollege basketball is a different game than it was 20 years ago. Freshmen routinely push themselves to the front of the line. Jared Sullinger was Ohio State's best player last year. Kentucky has a revolving door of freshman stars. Duke's best player last year was a freshman, and Austin Rivers is that guy this year. When it's his turn, Muhammad will be expected to play a similar role and make a similar impact on his team, the conference and the landscape of the college game.
What's unique about Muhammad is that he's got more star power than anyone in the country in his class, but he delicately balances individual success with team-oriented thinking. No one puts as many fannies in the seats as he does and one day he may get paid as an endorser of products because of it. He's easy to like because the effort level never changes. Muhammad doesn't take many games or plays off. He says his father taught him early on the value of consistency and he has made it a hallmark in his game.
That effort is reflected in Muhammad's attention to detail as a rebounder, a dirty job he embraces. "That's the most important part of the game. The teams that win, those teams rebound the ball and that's a good thing I have in my game."
Las Vegas is a dreamer's town. Most of the people who pass through entertain the thought of hitting it big and changing their lives forever. The difference between most people and Shabazz Muhammad is that he has put in the work required to one day hit the jackpot.
Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.
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