Perceptions can be hazardous this time of year, especially when they are negative. Shabazz Muhammad was supposed to be the No. 1 prospect entering this year’s NBA draft, a tough, powerful, high-scoring bull with a grown man’s game and polish beyond his years.
On his way to stardom, Muhammad was curtailed by an NCAA suspension that delayed his UCLA debut for weeks. The Bruins’ inconsistent play despite a banner freshman class and Muhammad’s perceived selfish attitude hurt his status. He is a draft enigma, potentially soaring to the top three with good workouts or perhaps dropping to the middle of the first round without them.
The NBA Draft Combine is the beginning of Muhammad’s independence. No longer would he allow others to speak for him. No longer would he allow his game and personality to be dictated and dissected without his input.
“I am a guy who’s going to talk for himself now,” he said last week in Chicago. “I was a guy who just used to play basketball and let some of my guys talk for me — family members — but right now I’m more mature as a person and I am going to talk for myself. I think that’s the right way to do it.”
Muhammad measured 6 feet 6 inches, 222 pounds at the combine and is considered a small forward/shooting guard. He was forced to sit out his first three games at UCLA for accepting improper benefits during unofficial recruiting visits to Duke and North Carolina. Also, he spent the season with media and NBA scouts believing he was 19 until a Los Angeles Times article revealed he played his freshman season at age 20, doing more damage to his reputation.
On the court, Muhammad showed flashes of brilliance but also selfishness, sometimes pouting when he didn’t receive the ball or jumping teammates after empty possessions.
Muhammad was one of the handful of players at the combine who believes the NBA is better suited for his game.
“Being drafted is great but I’m not satisfied with being drafted — I want to be an NBA All-Star and help my team win,” said Muhammad, who averaged 17.9 points and 5.2 rebounds in his lone season at UCLA. “That’s what it’s all about, winning. I learned a lot in college. Some of those situations were good learning experiences for me.
“Being the No. 1 guy, everybody wants you to fall and that makes me want to work. Just knowing you are going to have guys out there that don’t want you to succeed, I’ll try to prove them wrong.”
For a kid who has gone trouble-free save the NCAA violation issue, there seems to be no middle-of-the-road opinions on Muhammad’s potential NBA impact. There are scouts who love his game, style, and maturity, while others believe he is no more than a rotation player.
Some team in the lottery is going to take a chance on the lure of his potential, and Muhammad, who played prep basketball at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, wants to ensure that team gambles correctly. And first comes erasing the perceptions that he is difficult to coach and mercurial.
There was a sense of freedom with Muhammad. He could speak for himself without the constraints of coaches or sports information directors. He was confident, saying he was the “hardest worker in the draft,” but also humble at times.
“I’m not cocky at all, you ask anybody over here and I’m the nicest guy,” he said. “I try to be as humble as I can but if you work hard sometimes you know that you earned more respect. People say a lot about me being selfish. Getting into the league, I can’t wait to shut that down because I want to play basketball and win games.
“I think a lot of people were surprised at my interviews, how nice and well-spoken I am as a player and as a person. I am a guy who wants to learn. It’s hard to play in the NBA, so I am going to learn as much as I can.”
Kings’ throne stays in place
Any chance of the NBA returning to Seattle next season was obliterated last week when the league’s owners voted 22-8 to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Meanwhile, the franchise owners, the Maloofs, have executed an agreement to sell the club to a Sacramento-based group led by Indian-born American business mogul Vivek Ranadive, meaning the Seattle-based group led by Chris Hansen is out, and Seattle residents are crying foul — again.
There was a perception that the NBA yanked the Sonics from Seattle five years ago as a favor to owner Clayton Bennett, who helped save the New Orleans Hornets by giving them a home in Oklahoma City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And now with an arena plan set, and a deep-pocketed owner willing to pay more than $600 million for the club, Seattle was denied again.
But commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the decision was based more on Sacramento’s rally to develop an arena plan and local buyer than any misstep by Seattle.
If there is any consolation, Seattle has risen to potentially No. 1 on the NBA’s list of future locations. Yet the league has no intention of expanding, so the wait could be extended. This was likely Seattle’s last hope of regaining an NBA franchise during this decade.
That responsibility may lie in the lap of Silver, who will take over as commissioner in February. With Seattle-based reporters pressing the duo for answers following the Board of Governors meeting in Dallas, Silver attempted to laud Seattle’s effort in acquiring a team.
“The only thing I’d add is we’ve never wavered in our desire to return to the Seattle market at some point, as Chris Hansen made clear in his presentation to the Board of Governors,” Silver said. “The league continues to enjoy strong support in the Seattle market. We have strong support for our telecast, our national telecast in Seattle, and expansion was discussed at least as a possibility down the road. We want to wait and see what happens in our next national television negotiation, but we’re very appreciative of the fans in Seattle, and we’ve regretted having to leave the market the last time and we fully expect we’ll return there one day.”
Three months ago, it appeared the Kings were Seattle’s to have, but Mayor Kevin Johnson rallied Sacramento to produce a response to Hansen’s group, and the NBA rewarded the city with more time to keep the team there permanently.
“I think that once Sacramento got engaged in doing this and being able to deliver on the promise — which didn’t really exist when the original deal was made in Seattle — that the principal advantage to the incumbent was going to prevail, looking back with hindsight,” Stern acknowledged. “Nobody really thought that the property could be acquired, that the second site could be acquired, that the money could be put into escrow, all kinds of things, or that the size and strength of the group that ultimately was in Sacramento would likely emerge. Nobody had any doubt that the same or similar thing could happen in Seattle. It was just, do you give the edge to a city that has a 28-year history of support?”
Wilcox ready for new start
Chris Wilcox ran a clinic that helped raise funds for the American Heart Association, and he reflected on his difficult season with the Celtics, where he fell out of the rotation and wasn’t able to contribute as he had hoped. Wilcox entered Celtics training camp six months removed from surgery to repair an enlarged aorta, and said lack of training affected his conditioning.
“I didn’t have a chance to do anything. I had to come into training camp with really no workouts, just come in and start playing,” he said. “So this summer I can dedicate to working out and just strengthening my overall game so when I do come back to training camp, I’ll be ready.
“Whatever my situation is I want to be ready for it. When I came back, we were in training camp and it was tough because I hadn’t had any contact, so when I got back here that was my first time playing basketball, trying to get adjusted to that, and fight all the other things and insecurities you may have.”
Wilcox acknowledged that issues with his chest or breathing during the past few months have caused anxious moments.
“It will be like the smallest little thing that scares you,” he said. “Indigestion or something and you’re like, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ It was kind of tough not knowing what to deal with, but when everything just started coming together for me, the season is over. It’s been tough.”
Wilcox will be a free agent on July 1 and it’s questionable whether he will return to the Celtics.
“Now is definitely a good time for me because I’ve had a chance to play, get contact during the whole season,” he said. “I didn’t play a lot of minutes and I’m feeling good right now. So I’ve got a lot of extra time to just prepare and work on my game. This time that I have off right now is a time for me to grind and get my game right.”
Wilcox said he wants to return to the Celtics.
“I definitely think I can help this team,” he said. “This year I really wasn’t able to show a lot of stuff that I can do, injuries and different things like that. But I do think I can help this team or get to a situation where I can help.”
Celtics could go a few ways
The Celtics have the 16th pick in the June draft, their highest since they banked on getting a top-two pick in 2007 but settled for fifth and then dealt the pick for Ray Allen. There is major speculation that the club will trade up or down unless a prospect they desire lands in their laps.
ESPN draft gurus Chad Ford and Fran Fraschilla chimed in on the Celtics’ possibilities in this bizarre draft, which could be a gem or a dud.
“Their scouting staff has traditionally done a very good job in this range,” said Fraschilla, the former coach at New Mexico, St. John’s, and Manhattan. “I think they could go either way — they could go development or a European kid, a big kid that’s hanging around and they could stash overseas. Or I think there’s enough of those guys that we talked about, the senior or the guy that can be a rotation player, that are going to be staring at them at 16, that I tend to think they are going to do what they’ve always done and find the best fit for them.
“They draft basketball players, guys you can stick in Doc Rivers's system, and they pick things up relatively quickly.”
Ford pointed out a couple of prospects who may fall to Boston, including Georgia sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the SEC player of the year, who averaged 18 points and seven rebounds last season. Ford also noted San Diego State swingman Jamaal Franklin, who averaged 17 points and 9.5 rebounds as a junior. Franklin improved throughout his college career, a trait Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge likes.
“I know Danny Ainge’s spiel and he takes players based on how he projects their potential in the future, not necessarily what they’ve just done in college,” Ford said. “Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are just great examples of that. Ainge loved them in high school, saw them in college, and felt like in both players’ cases, the systems that they were in did not accentuate the strengths that he saw in them as players. And in both cases, he got a player that was much better than where they drafted them because Ainge has a great ability to see what a player can and can’t do and be able to divorce that from what they did do in college.”
Asked about the potential of the 16th pick, Ainge said, “I don’t think this draft is particularly strong and I think there are some players with potential who are projects and there’s some players who have a chance to blossom into players down the road. There’s not very many that are going to come in and help a team right out of the gate.”
The Celtics are open to moving the pick, something they have done several times in the Ainge era.
“We could trade up, trade down, there are a lot of different scenarios that haven’t even been discussed yet,” he said. “Right now we’re just preparing and evaluating all the players in the draft.”
The Celtics will have one summer league entry this year as opposed to the two teams they carried last year. Boston will play in the Orlando Summer League but that team will not feature Bradley or Jared Sullinger. Sullinger is recovering as expected from back surgery. Bradley, who has missed the past two summers with injuries, is being held out to get rest. Fab Melo and the Celtics’ first-round pick will be the featured players . . . Potential No. 1 overall draft pick Nerlens Noel may have some work to do on his body after weighing in at 206 pounds during the combine. Noel is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament but will have to add weight to be productive in the NBA . . . An interesting coaching candidate as the offseason progresses will be Memphis’s Lionel Hollins, who is at the end of his deal with the Grizzlies and has led the club to its first Western Conference finals appearance. The Grizzlies are peaking at the right time for Hollins, who was not re-signed to an extension and now could be a top hire when the season concludes . . . On the list of intriguing free agents is one Tony Allen, a first-team all-defensive guard who is 31 and is finishing his ninth NBA season. Allen is earning just $3 million in the final season of the three-year deal he signed with Memphis and is almost guaranteed a raise on his next contract . . . Former Seattle and Portland coach Nate McMillan may have his choice of jobs in Detroit and Atlanta as both clubs close in on new coaches. McMillan sat out last season after being fired in Portland.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.