BROOKLYN — When Shabazz Muhammad was cleared by the NCAA of amateurism violations last Friday, the organizers of the Legends Classic caught a major break.
The 6-foot-6 UCLA small forward would make his much-anticipated collegiate debut here — in Jay-Z’s borough– against Georgetown, with a possible heavyweight showdown against No. 1 Indiana coming in the final.
Ideally, that would have meant a meeting between Muhammad and Indiana sophomore center Cody Zeller — both of whom are considered potential No. 1 picks in the 2013 NBA Draft.
But, alas, it was not to be.
Playing in front of nearly 50 NBA scouts, Muhammad flashed an array of skills but looked rusty in his college debut. He scored his first points on a stop-and-pop pullup contested 15-foot jumper. He later threw down a vicious dunk. And he showed his range by going 2-for-4 from beyond the arc. Overall, he managed 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting across 25 minutes as No. 11 UCLA lost to Georgetown, 78-70.
“It doesn’t feel good inside,” said Muhammad, whose Bruins will face Georgia Tuesday in the consolation game instead of the top-ranked Hoosiers.
“I really wanted to get [Indiana], but just knowing that we’re really not ready yet. But we’re going to practice and really get this together and be a really good team.”
Truth be told, neither Zeller nor Muhammad looked deserving of a No. 1 overall pick on this night, early as it is in the season.
The 7-foot Zeller managed just six points and four rebounds, but his teammates helped him earn the win. Victor Oladipo (15 points), Jordan Hulls (14) and Christian Watford (14) combined for 43 points.
Indiana coach Tom Crean said Zeller has been sick, apparently with the flu, and missed a couple days of practice.
“That’s not an excuse, he just had a little foul trouble,” Crean said.
“Zeller really struggled at the offensive end tonight,” one Western Conference scout told SNY.tv. “He certainly did not look or play like the No. 1 pick.”
He added: “Is he going to be the No. 1 pick, or is he not? He’s gonna get analyzed and analyzed and analyzed all year long. It’s gonna be very interesting.”
When asked who he would take with the No. 1 pick if he had to make it right now, an Eastern Conference scout said, “Probably Zeller.”
Zeller has had the benefit of a full season of college ball plus all of preseason with his teammates, while Muhammad, projected as the No. 1 pick by DraftExpress.com, only had a handful of practices with UCLA going in.
He injured his left ankle this summer and missed nine weeks with the team, and also suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out for more than two weeks this fall. In between, he couldn’t go on UCLA’s trip to China while the NCAA investigated recruiting trips that were paid for by financial advisors. In the end, Muhammad had to re-pay $1,600 for those trips.
“I think I missed a lot, just jelling with the team,” Muhammad said. “Even missing the summer in China and just getting to come as a whole as a team and missing those three games really hurt me.”
Ron Holmes, Muhammad’s father and a former USC player, said they never considered having him play in Europe, even as they awaited word from the NCAA on his status.
“No, I always felt it was going to work out,” Holmes told SNY.tv, “because at the end of the day we knew we never did anything wrong. We did the trips, that was one thing, but anything else we didn’t do anything.”
Now that he’s cleared and has a game under his belt, Muhammad believes his upside is big going forward.
“Oh, I think I can be a lot better,” he said. “I mean, I thought I didn’t play really well tonight. We didn’t really play good on defense. We’re just going to get back at it and practice and get better as a team.”
Said UCLA coach Ben Howland: ”I thought he did a very good job, considering. You can see that he’s a got a lot of work to put in conditioning-wise to where he wants to be but he did a good job in his first outing.”
Holmes believes his son will be back to his old self within a few games.
“I think he was just trying to feel himself around the court a little bit,” Holmes told SNY.tv. “I thought he was pretty tentative, but I think after a couple games, three or four games, he’ll be his old self.”
And by then, he could start to resemble the No. 1 pick in the draft — or close to it.
At this point, it figures to be a season-long battle for the top spot between several players, including Zeller, Muhammad, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky, Isaiah Austin of Baylor and perhaps others.
“Maybe at the end of the day [Muhammad] could becomes the guy that becomes the No. 1 pick,” the Western Conference scout said. “I don’t know.”
Photo: Getty Images