One spring afternoon back in 2003, a high school senior from Philadelphia visited the offices of ESPN The Magazine in New York. He was the No. 1-rated point guard in America at the time and was headed west to play for Lute Olson and the University of Arizona in the fall.
His name? Mustafa Shakur.
in a long line of great Wildcats point guards.
Many people, myself included, figured that hotshot 18-year-old wouldn't still be wearing an Arizona Wildcats uniform by now -- he'd be wearing an NBA uniform. But Shakur says that back then he wasn't sure what to expect.
"I just wanted to work hard and play the game," he says. "I figured if I kept improving, I'd know when it was my time to go [to the NBA], and then I'd go."
A lot of people in Arizona are very happy he's still there. Now a senior, Shakur is averaging 14.2 points, 7.6 assists (third in the nation) and 4.2 rebounds per game. And he's the leader of a 14-5 Wildcats team that, despite some recent struggles, still has enough talent to threaten for a national championship.
The No. 19-ranked Cats take on No. 4 North Carolina in Tucson on Saturday afternoon.
But it hasn't been a smooth ride for Shakur for his four years out west. He had a good freshman season and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. But things were pretty bumpy the next two years. His individual numbers didn't really improve, and he developed a rep as a shoot-first, pass-second point guard. The team was underwhelming as well -- by Arizona standards -- although the Wildcats did reach the Elite Eight in Shakur's sophomore year before losing a heartbreaker to Illinois.
Those teams suffered from chemistry issues on the court and incidents off it. But Shakur wasn't the root of the problem. In fact, he quietly went about trying to improve his game -- particularly his jump shot. He'd arrived at Arizona with a quirky release, more two-handed than one (causing poor rotation on the ball), which the coaching staff urged him to alter. Olson recalls Shakur taking thousands and thousands of shots on his own, before and after practices, working on his form.
"It wasn't easy for a high school All-American to accept," Olson says. "He's the hardest-working kid I've ever dealt with in all my years of coaching."
Shakur points to last year's NCAA Tournament as the beginning of his breakthrough. Arizona was a disappointing No. 8 seed, but the Cats were placed in Philadelphia for their first- and second-round games. Shakur needed about 50 tickets for friends and family. He'd heard rumblings from back home about him not living up to expectations. But he played two outstanding games -- notching 17 points and nine assists in a win against Wisconsin and 21 points and five assists in a four-point loss to top-seeded Villanova.
"I got to go back home, and that was my opportunity to show everybody who doubted me what I could do," Shakur says. "And I put on a good show."
His confidence boosted, Shakur declared for the NBA draft in April, and worked out for several NBA clubs, including Memphis, Detroit and Cleveland. No one could guarantee he'd be drafted, so he decided to pull out and return for his senior season. But he picked up some great advice along the way.
"Jerry West and Joe Dumars both told me I do a lot of things well, so don't worry so much about scoring," Shakur says. "Play hard defense, create for other people and the shots will come to you."
Olson had preached similar things as well.
Armed with that advice, Shakur has enjoyed an outstanding senior season. He's averaging 2.9 more assists per game than last year, and he's scoring three more points per game. Perhaps most impressively, his shooting percentage has rocketed from 42.3 percent a year ago to 52.2 percent this season -- thanks to much-improved shot selection.
And Shakur, a generally quiet young man, has emerged into quite a leader.
"He's such a positive influence," Olson says. "He's always pumping up the guys, encouraging everybody."
All this has lots of people talking about Shakur and the next level again. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, he certainly has the size to play point guard in the NBA. Arizona is often referred to as "Point Guard U." for the stable of point men Olson has developed over the years (Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry et al). "If you take into account his size, defense, quickness and work ethic, and look at the whole package," Olson says, "[Shakur's] playing as well right now as any guard that's come through here.
"I think he's gonna be an outstanding guard in the NBA."
OK, so it's taken longer than many of us expected. But Shakur sounds very happy with how things have transpired and very excited about his future -- which could include a trip to the NBA draft in New York.
"Of course that's a big goal of mine," Shakur says. "It would be great to walk up on that stage, and I'm doing everything in my power to make that happen."
No matter what, he's welcome back at the ESPN The Magazine offices anytime.
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.