BROOKLYN – All things considered, Shabazz Muhammad didn’t play too badly in his first game as a collegian.
He finished with 15 points on 5-10 shooting in 25 minutes of action, although a couple of those buckets came in the final minute with the outcome, a 78-70 loss to Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, all-but decided. He only grabbed one rebound, which is concerning given his strength and athleticism, and he was no where near the player that he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. He was a long way from good, and he certainly didn’t come close to the reputation he had built for himself coming into the game.
This wass supposed to be a top three pick, mind you, and top three picks aren’t supposed to look as consistently over-matched as Muhammad did on both ends of the floor tonight.
And Muhammad will tell you the same thing.
“I can get a lot better. I didn’t play well tonight. I didn’t play well on defense,” Muhammad told reporters after the game.
That’s understandable. This was Muhammad’s first college basketball game after spending the past six months dealing with NCAA investigations into his time as a high schooler. He suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out for nine weeks over the summer. He didn’t practice with the team before they went to China. He didn’t go with the team to China. The first chance he had to practice was about a month ago, and in that time he’s dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him from being able to play, lift, or work on his conditioning for half that time.
He’s out of shape, out of sync with his teammates and, quite frankly, probably rusty.
And you thought he was going to come in here and look like James Harden did in his first game with the Rockets?
“It was really exciting getting out on the court for the first time,” Muhammad said when asked how he felt about his debut. “Just finally getting the jitters out and getting comfortable playing college basketball for the first time was a good experience.”
“I’m trying to get out here and gel with my teammates for the first time. My first college game, trying to get used to playing with all these players.”
It’s not like Muhammad is a piece getting plugged into an experienced team, either. Kyle Anderson is a freshman. Larry Drew II is a transfer that is playing for the first time in 20 months. Norman Powell is starting for the first time in his college career. Jordan Adams, who has scored at least 20 points in all four games as a collegian, is also a freshman.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Bruins have been dealt a bad hand when it comes to injuries. Muhammad has already dealt with ankle and shoulder issues. Kyle Anderson missed a couple months over the summer after thumb surgery. Tony Parker didn’t play on Monday due to a back issue. Tyler Lamb hasn’t returned to the court yet after getting surgery on his knee.
In other words, Muhammad isn’t the only one that needs to gel on this team.
It’s a group that doesn’t necessarily fit together perfectly with a coach who isn’t necessarily built to handle a team with their strengths. They were shredded defensively by Georgetown’s Princeton-style offense, which is not something you typically see from a Ben Howland-coached team. They looked lost offensively against Georgetown’s zone. They didn’t run the floor well at all. The 16 offensive rebounds they collected were nice, but the 60% Georgetown shot from the floor in the second half wasn’t.
“We are a team that is very young and we got hurt defensively,” Howland said. “They shot 55% from the game, 60% for the second half. Those two stats jump out.”
I spent the preseason doing nothing but send up warning flares that UCLA had dumpster fire potential written all over them.
And while I would love to take this time to revel in the fact that I was, once again, right, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there were some positives to take out of this game.
First and foremost, Drew looks like a different player than they one that flamed out at North Carolina. He now has 33 assists and just six turnovers in 135 minutes this season. He got in the lane and created, he found shooters on the secondary break, he got the ball to his teammates where they needed it and when they needed it, and, most importantly, he did nothing dumb to hurt them. In the end, that’s all he really needs to do.
The other thing I liked was the way Howland used Anderson in the second half. There’s no question that Anderson is one of the more unique talents in the country, but asking him to be a primary ball-handler at this level is unfair. He’s not going to be blowing by players like Otto Porter and Greg Whittington off the dribble. Where he is effective, however, is as a playmaker out of the high post. When UCLA cut Georgetown’s lead to four in the second half, it’s because Anderson got them easy shot after easy shot against a 2-3 zone.
The Wears are capable up front, Josh Smith and Tony Parker can provide muscle when need be, and Muhammad, Adams and Powell provide as much scoring punch on the wing as you’ll find anywhere in the country.
There are still plenty of pieces that need to fall into place for this group.
But if you’re a UCLA fan, now is not the time to be selling off your season tickets, and judging them too harshly off of their first game with Muhammad in the fold is unfair.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.