With March Madness now behind us, many players are declaring their intentions for the next year of basketball. While it has been widely assumed that freshman phenom Shabazz Muhammad will leave UCLA for the NBA, the one person we haven’t heard from on the topic is…freshman phenom Shabazz Muhammad.
Sure, his old coach Ben Howland said he was leaving, and reports recently surfaced that his new coach, Steve Alford, has made the same assertion. However, those conclusions lack solid evidence, as we’ve yet to hear a concrete decision from Muhammad. That’s not to say they’re misguided in thinking that, but UCLA fans just want to know, is he staying or leaving? There may be no wrong decision for him now, as either choice could work out for the 20-year-old small forward, if the cards fall in his favor. With the draft declaration deadline fast approaching on April 28, let’s take a look at what’s weighing on Muhammad’s mind.
Why to Stay: The Bruins were ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll last year, and at times they played like it. With Muhammad alongside fellow freshman sharpshooter Jordan Adams, the Bruins had the highest scoring freshman tandem in the Pac-12, second only to Cal’s dynamic duo of Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs (both juniors).
Under Coach Alford, one can expect the offense to open up to better fit the athletic wings and versatile big men, possibly improving upon the offense that already led the Pac-12 in points with 74.7 per game. UCLA proved it’s the class of the conference when playing well, as seen in THREE victories over Arizona and a regular season conference title. But they can also give away some games, like those at Washington State and home against USC last year.
If Muhammad returns, every player but one would be coming back (albeit a big one in starting senior PG Larry Drew II), and that would really help Alford ease into his new job. Muhammad could grow into the prolific scorer we thought he could and dominate the college game, possibly boosting his draft stock even higher. If he stays, we may see the dangerous team that was picked by many to make some noise in the Big Dance before Adams’ injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. That’s what could drive Shabazz to stay in Westwood.
Why to Go: Most experts have Shabazz solidly in the top 10 of the draft. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. The fame, the lights and, of course, the money are all calling. Every young basketball player dreams of being a lottery pick, and each could never live down knowing he passed up his shot. As possible as it is for Muhammad to play himself into a top-3 spot, he could also play his way out of the lottery if he returns and underperforms. Experts already question why he fell short of his high recruiting potential, so why not leave now and blame it on Howland’s defensive-minded approach?
And also, if he returns, the Bruins would be missing only one player from last season. But, as we mentioned, that would be none other than the starting point guard, the senior leader, the one who could get to the bucket at will and the one who could harass the opposing point guard to no end. And let’s not forget the 7.7 assists per game, and 2.98 assist-to-turnover ratio (good for 7th in the country) that LDII brought to the court in his one season with UCLA. We have yet to see how his loss will affect the Bruins, or if the new ball-handlers, whoever they may be, can handle the extra pressure. If the team lacks a facilitator, what good would it be for Shabazz to come back and see his numbers dip? Maybe the uncertainty is reason enough for him to call it quits.
Right now, it’s impossible to tell whether Shabazz will stay or go. Most signs point to his departure. He has yet to say anything contrary to the many people saying he’s leaving. He has barely been in contact with his new coach, and he didn’t show up to the first offseason practice. However, he hasn’t declared yet, so a shade of mystery remains.
Maybe he likes the idea of a second chance where he gets to retry his shot at college basketball. Or maybe he doesn’t like the bad taste of consecutive losses to end the season. At this point, the brain says he goes and the heart says he stays. But in reality, we know nothing—not quite yet.