This week I flew to California to take a look at more top prospects in the 2013 NBA draft. On Tuesday, I took in a workout with UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad.
Here's a look at what I saw:
Muhammad might be the most controversial prospect in the draft. Blessed with both terrific scoring skills and a tremendous amount of hype, he was widely regarded as a potential No. 1 pick coming into his freshman season.
But expectations can be a tricky thing. Seven months later, Muhammad finds himself fighting to stay inside the lottery. Were the glowing scouting reports on him in high school just wrong? Or is Muhammad's evaluation more complicated?
I traveled up to Santa Barbara to try to get some answers. I don't particularly care about the issues with his birth certificate (Muhammad's father changed his birth certificate to show that he was one year younger than he actually was), nor am I overly concerned about the occasional bouts of poor body language he showed at UCLA (like the time he didn't join his teammates in celebrating after Larry Drew III hit a game-winning shot).
Those issues go to character and virtually every NBA scout and GM I spoke with doesn't seem overly concerned. Muhammad did what he had to do in his interviews and teams came away with the impression that Muhammad wasn't going to be a problem in the locker room or off the court.
What I really wanted to know is this: Does Muhammad have the tools, both physically and skills-wise, to be a great NBA player? More specifically, does Muhammad have the athleticism and will he develop the skills (an effective right-hand handle and the ability to shoot it off the bounce) to compete in the NBA?
To get the answer to the athleticism question, I traveled up to P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara. P3 provides complete biomechanical and neuromuscular assessments to athletes and then helps them improve on weaknesses. This is a place literally on the cutting edge of where sports training is going in the next decade.
They've had nearly 100 NBA athletes through their doors, as well as a number of full NBA teams and were the guys responsible for Enes Kanter's complete physical and athletic transformation last summer.
Muhammad was on a recovery day, so I didn't see any intense training. However, I was more interested in the data, and Dr. Marcus Elliott, director of P3, was happy to walk me through it.
We spent about an hour watching motion capture video of Muhammad. P3 uses an eight-camera motion analysis system with three force plates to understand, in their words, "the exact lower extremity kinematics [joint angles], kinetics [joint torques] and muscle activation patterns when athletes perform high force sports specific movements."
In plain English, P3 is able to look at how players produce force and then make adjustments in a way that allows them to maximize potential and avoid injury. They can tell whether a player is putting undue stress on a joint, for example, increasing the likelihood of future injury. They can train the neuromuscular system and help players develop proper mechanics to create maximum performance.
Elliott pulled up Muhammad's motion analysis, force curves and performance data, and then compared him with approximately 35 other NBA wings they've tested. Elliott is obsessed with collecting analytical data on players that go far beyond the eye test or raw max vertical scores, and his 10-year NBA database has distinguished the critical physical metrics of many of the NBA's most successful athletes.
That showed in his review of Muhammad's vertical jump (motion analysis). While Muhammad is a slightly above-average leaper for his position (he measured with a 37-inch max vertical jump at the predraft camp), what stands out in the P3 data is how quickly Muhammad gets off the floor. He's a fast leaper; in fact he's the fastest wing they've tested at P3 in a sub max jump to 10-feet-6. His quick explosion off the floor, combined with an extraordinary wingspan, explains while he was one of the top wing offensive rebounders in the country last year.
"The NBA only measured how high a player gets," Elliott said. "But if you watch basketball you know that only tells a small part of the story. Vertical quickness is a bigger part of the game than pure vertical jump height. We would take fast to 11-6 over slow to 12-6 any day. For a player like Muhammad, you'd rather have him be a fast jumper than have him jump an extra few inches."
Muhammad also generates significant force in his various vertical movements and fairly large forces in horizontal planes. Again, he showed up as significantly more powerful than the average wing player at his position -- something Muhammad uses to his advantage when scoring the basketball.
Where Muhammad needs work is on his lateral quickness. While he still shows a lot of power, his relative lack of hip and ankle mobility mean that the force he generates tends to project vertically instead of horizontally. Elliott showed me computer graphs of both his horizontal and vertical force and walked me through how P3 was getting Muhammad to change his technique so that he could explode the same way laterally that he does vertically.
While Muhammad wasn't where he needed to be coming in (he's just a tick under the average for all wings they've tested) Elliott was confident that Muhammad would get there.
"Some players just don't have the neuromuscular system to really improve much," Elliott said. "You can work and work and work with them and you just don't move the needle much. With others, you can do a lot with a little training. We've already seen significant improvements and we'll continue to see more."
Overall P3's data-driven approach was one of the most thorough I've seen and went a long way in alleviating fears I had about Muhammad's athleticism. Is he an elite athlete? No. But there's more than enough there to make him an above-average athlete at his position and his reactivity and explosion should be among the best at his position.
Athletic ability is only part of the story, however. What about on the court?
At UCLA, Muhammad was a left-handed dominant forward who shot, by far, his highest field goal percentage at the rim from transition points, offensive rebounds and post-ups. While Muhammad showed a better than expected 3-point shot when he spotted up (40 percent from 3 this season), his shooting percentage dropped dramatically when he had to shoot off the dribble (23 percent). Muhammad also had an alarmingly low rate of assists (just 27 all year).
In high school, Muhammad was able to use his strength, quick leaping ability and high basketball IQ to score at will. In college it got significantly harder. In the NBA? Teams have serious questions.
In the afternoon I traveled over to the Thunderdome at UC-Santa Barbara to watch Muhammad work out with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball. Hanlen worked out Bradley Beal, John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor last year. This summer he's focused on Muhammad.
Hanlen, who teaches his clients in part by the use of game film and stats, had spent the morning cutting some video of James Harden and was turning them into drills for Muhammad.
Hanlen has been tweaking Muhammad's shot, pushing him to work on his right-hand dribbling and teaching him a number of moves that players like Harden use to get their shot off in the NBA.
What I saw was a work in progress. Muhammad still is getting used to the new motion. When he opened up his hips and got the right follow-through, he was almost perfect shooting the ball. However, at times he's still reverting back to his old form at UCLA, which led to inconsistent results. He's only been in the program a month. These things take time and GMs generally believe that a jump shot is one thing you can fix.
What was more impressive was Hanlen's use of a number of Harden hesitation dribbles and step-backs to help Muhammad create separation in order to get his jump shot off. While Muhammad still doesn't totally look comfortable using his right hand, Hanlen is bringing him along slowly using two to three dribble jabs with his right to get him open.
The biggest thing that stood out during the workout was Muhammad's energy. He was relentless for the full 45 minutes. He brings a great work ethic to the table, and Hanlen was pushing him at a pretty insane pace. At the end, Muhammad was huffing and puffing, but he was still able to dunk and hit his jumpers.
If teams believe that with a little effort, Muhammad will be able to transform his game, he might have gone from being the most overrated player in the draft to the most underrated.
With his motor, toughness and natural aggression scoring the ball, Muhammad has the potential to be one of the best, if not the best scorer in a draft devoid of talented scorers. The question is, when will a team take a chance on him?
The two teams in the top 10 with the most interest appear to be the Detroit Pistons at No. 8 and the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 9. Sources say that new Timberwolves GM Flip Saunders is especially high on Muhammad and feels the team needs to add scorers.
Outside of the top 10, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz all are natural fits. While a draft range of No. 8 to 14 is far from the No. 1 pick, it might just be what the doctor ordered for Muhammad. After being hyped his whole career, an escape from such crushing expectations might give him the freedom he needs to live up to his lofty potential.