- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- UCLA coach Ben Howland apologized Monday for creating a minor whirlwind by stating over the weekend that freshman Shabazz Muhammad was going to bolt for the NBA after the Bruins' season.
Howland somewhat softened his stance about the definitiveness of Muhammad's future plans and acknowledged that he has not yet discussed next season with Muhammad, but remained resigned to the fact that he would be losing his leading scorer.
"I'm sorry that I even -- I'm sometimes too honest because it would have been better to have answered that question differently the other day because I've never discussed it with Shabazz," Howland said. "It's just kind of obvious when a kid is a lottery pick that they're going to be going to the NBA in this day and age."
Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 forward, is projected as a top 10 pick in many NBA mock drafts. He's leading all freshmen nationally with 18.3 points per game and is a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award given annually to the nation's top freshman.
Muhammad laughed off Howland's proclamation that Saturday's home finale was Muhammad's "last game in Pauley, no doubt about it." The freshman, one of the top two players in his class coming out of high school, said his decision about entering the NBA draft won't be made until after the season.
"I never said I wasn't coming back," he said. "I never said I'm not coming back even though I know I'm in a pretty good position draft-wise. But I'm looking at our team next year and we could be really good. I'm just worried about this season right now and whether I want to come back or not -- that'll be after the season."
The No. 23 Bruins (22-7, 12-4) are in a tie for first place in the Pac-12 and need a sweep this week at Washington State and Washington in order to guarantee at least a share of the conference title. Then the Pac-12 tournament looms and, of course, the NCAA tournament. Those are Muhammad's primary focuses, he said.
"We have a big season ahead of us," Muhammad said.
Howland, however, went so far as to say he would encourage Muhammad to leave as he would with any player who is projected as a lottery pick.
"It's incumbent upon me as the coach here that if a kid is a top-10 pick to encourage him to do the right thing for him and his family," Howland said.
"In my opinion, if someone is a lottery pick, he should go to the NBA."
But Howland also said he'd like to see some sort of change in the one-and-done rule. Currently, high school players have to be a year out of high school in order to be draft eligible. Howland said he'd like players to be draft eligible immediately out of high school, but be required to stay two or three years should they decide to attend college.
The current system, he said, makes the NCAA a minor league for the NBA, and allows teams to evaluate potential draft picks under organized, high-level competition.
"It's all set up for [the NBA] and we have no control," Howland said. "It would be great if we could have more of a dialogue because I think it would be better overall for the culture of basketball and ultimately for their league if they stay for more than one year once they attended college."
Howland also said he was taken aback that his comments about Muhammad leaving school early became a national story on Saturday. He said he figured it was common knowledge that Muhammad would leave school, but when he got home after the game he saw the news scrolling across the ESPN Bottom Line.
"It's amazing to me that this turned into such a big deal," Howland said. "That this is really big news, because to me, it's not at all."
And with that, Howland apologized once again.
"I got home Saturday night and it's on ESPN every four seconds: 'Howland says,' " he said. "And you have to look at my ugly face there on the tube. I apologize."
UCLA coach Ben Howland apologized Monday for creating a minor whirlwind by stating over the weekend that freshman Shabazz Muhammad was going to bolt for the NBA after the Bruins' season.