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September 2, 2014

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After roller coaster year, more uncertainty awaits Muhammad at NBA Draft

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad waits to enter during their Pac-12 Basketball Tournament game against Arizona State Thursday, March 14, 2013 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Shabazz Muhammad - Pac-12 Tournament

UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad slaps hands with fans after the Bruins beat Arizona State 80-75 in their Pac-12 Basketball Tournament game Thursday, March 14, 2013 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Launch slideshow »

It’s the uncertainty that unnerves Shabazz Muhammad. The former No. 1-ranked high school player in the country and one-time projected top overall pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft couldn’t tell you where he’s going any more than the writers who have projected him anywhere from No. 7 to No. 18.

“(I’m nervous) about draft night,” Muhammad recently told ESPN. “Not knowing where I’m going and just having those jitters in your stomach.”

The Bishop Gorman High School grad’s past season has been filled with uncertainty and controversy. First about when or if he would ever suit up for UCLA that resulted in the NCAA firing an investigator, then hullabaloos over a backpack and the lack of celebrating a game-winner with his team. At the end of the season came the L.A. Times story revealing Muhammad is 20 years old, not 19 as originally listed in his bio, and then in May, his father, Ron Holmes, was indicted on federal bank fraud and conspiracy charges.

“He’s gone through a lot of things this year,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said. “It’s obviously been an up-and-down year, and he’s ready to put closure on it and start working for an NBA team.”

But just who will that team be? No player knows exactly where they’ll be picked, but most at least have a solid idea about the range of options. For example, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett fell to No. 8 in Chad Ford’s most recent mock draft on ESPN.com, yet he’s still in the conversation for No. 1 overall. That’s a big difference, but Bennett knows there’s no chance he slips out of the top 10, and he likely won’t make it past No. 5.

That’s why he’s one of at least 10 players publicly announced to be attending the draft in person at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Muhammad is arguably the most notable player left off that list. It’s one of many developments churning up those butterflies in his stomach as draft night approaches.

“From an ego standpoint, obviously you want to be drafted as high as you can,” Rice said. “But now it gets to the point where you’d rather just go to a team where you think you’ll be a good fit.”

With all of the dissection and mostly negative press, it’s easy to forget that Muhammad did things like rank second in the country in points per game (17.9) for a freshman. He was a decent offensive rebounder for his size — 6-foot-5 but with a 6-11 wingspan — and didn’t turn the ball over much, though he also didn’t handle the ball a lot off the dribble.

Adding that to his arsenal and being able to succeed in an offense while moving off screens are a couple of things Muhammad said he’s trying to put an emphasis on. And long term, he’ll need to use his wingspan to be a shutdown defender, but wherever he goes, most people expect him to be able to do at least one thing immediately.

“He can score right away,” Rice said.

That’s never been much of a problem for Muhammad. He’s great at scoring in transition, does a good job of cleaning up missed shots around the rim, and at UCLA, he had a 56.6 adjusted field goal percentage on catch-and-shoots, according to ESPN.com.

The overarching storyline of this draft is that it may be the worst in the past decade, with few NBA-ready, impact players. While so many questions about the players as a group would seem to benefit a guy with Muhammad’s upside, he’s been bouncing all around projected draft boards in the past two months. Lately, though, it’s mostly been trending downward.

“I’m still positive about the situation,” Rice said.

How much of Muhammad’s movement is fact and how much is a front put up by teams in the early teens that may see Muhammad as a steal at that position? Much like the rest of Muhammad’s life in the past year, no one can say for certain until it plays out.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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