The NBA draft has not even happened yet, but next year's Rookie of the Year sleeper may be its most recognizable name.
Before the season started, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammed was one of the few household names in college basketball. He was one of three players, along with Nerlens Noel and Cody Zeller, projected to be candidates for the top pick overall in the draft.
The season came and went and between a suspension, an injury, being a year older than believed, and lower than expected output sent Muhammed from a top three pick all the way down to possibly a late lottery pick.
Thanks in part to all of the criticism, Muhammed not only showed up at the Draft Combine in Chicago last week and not only competed in the physical tests, but also in the skills competition, which most top propects skip. Speaking to the media afterwards, Muhammed said despite all that happened this year he still considers himself the best player in the draft. (H/T to Michael Lee of the Washington Post)
Being the number one guy, everybody wants you to fall. Guys want you to fall all the time. You’re going to have guys out there that’s not going to want you to succeed. That’s why I’m going to work as hard as I can to prove those guys wrong.
I know I’m a great player. I’m a guy that believes he’s the best player in the draft. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
There's no complete prospect in this draft.
At 6-foot-6, Muhammed might be a little undersized to play small forward in the NBA (though his 6-foot-11 wingspan helps). And it is unclear if he is quick enough to defend shooting guards.
Still, he can score, he plays as hard as anyone else and he wants to win. Several times during the season Muhammed was the guy to hit a big shot late in a game to help UCLA win the Pac-12 regular season title. And now, he has a chip on his shoulder because of how his falling stock.
This reminds me of two guys from previous drafts who faced similar situations.
The first is Harrison Barnes, who was really good but not great in his two years at North Carolina and, as a result, slipped to seventh when you could have made the argument he should have been a top-five pick — and maybe even the second overall pick behind Anthony Davis.
The other guy is Kawhi Leonard, who was not a huge prospect coming out of college, but he started to get buzz as a top-five pick. He worked out for teams like the Toronto Raptors who held the fifth pick in 2011. Instead, Leonard fell all the way to 15th when the San Antonio Spurs swapped George Hill for Leonard.
Now each play key roles on playoff teams.
I am willing to bet the exact same thing happens with Muhammed. Maybe it will be in Minnesota or in Portland later in the lottery or maybe a playoff team will trade up for him like the Spurs did with Leonard. Maybe the Spurs will even trade up for Muhammed.
Alright, that might be a stretch, but what if the Bulls or the Clippers or another playoff team snags him? My point is do not count out Shabazz Muhammed yet. If there is one thing the draft has shown us is a talented player going to the right team with the right coaching staff is usually a better recipe then just being a talented player getting drafted high.