Attention Benefit: Shabazz Muhammad Rises To The Occasion

Shabazz Muhammad certainly knows how to leave a lasting impression.

With about 30 seconds left in Bishop Gorman’s 73-65 victory over No. 5 Dematha at the Hoophall Classic on Monday, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2012 punctuated a 37-point performance with a sensational windmill dunk, later named No. 3 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, sitting two seats down from Kentucky counterpart John Calipari on the baseline, raised an eyebrow.

If you looked closely right then, you saw Muhammad allow himself the slightest hint of a grin before he loped back on defense. For a player who thrives on having unparalleled competitive drive and focus, consider his momentary satisfaction to be a rare on-court concession.

“(I was) trying to get an exciting dunk at the end, and just have fun out here, and I love my teammates,” a smiling Muhammad said on ESPN after the game. “We did a good job.”

Less spectacular but more telling was a play that had happened a bit earlier, when Muhammad dove on the court to wrestle away a loose ball on defense, sprang to his feet and bolted to the other end to take a feed for an emphatic slam.

That conjunction of hustle and talent crystallized why Muhammad is so coveted by a laundry list of top college programs: He’s seemingly too good to be true.

A physically mature 6-6, 215 pounds, Muhammad fits the cliché of a man amongst boys. Drawing comparisons to Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the two main players he studies, Muhammad isn’t merely the most talented player on the court. He’s a born leader, he prides himself on his work ethic, and he basically just seems to want it more than anyone else.

“The moment’s never big for him, that’s what I’ve learned about him,” Shabazz’s father, Ron Holmes, said. “This was a big stage today. And this is what he always does.”

Consider that he plays his high school ball in Las Vegas and possesses the flashiest name this side of Jesus Shuttlesworth, and Muhammad logically faces an overwhelming amount of public and media scrutiny. Yet he seems relatively unfazed, looking reporters in the eye while politely and thoughtfully answering questions about his future.

“It’s something you have to get used to,” Muhammad said of the constant attention. “I just try to stay as humble as possible, always stay in the gym, and good things will come to you when you do that.”

By now, boldface coaching names like K and Cal are as ubiquitous at his games as Spike Lee is at the Garden.

“Warmup lines, you’re looking and seeing who’s there, and you get jitters,” Muhammad said. “First two minutes, I had a little bit of jitters.

“Then you get going, and you just don’t know if they’re there or not.”

This isn’t to say Muhammad is incapable of having a little fun with the spotlight; after the game, he tweeted a screen grab of himself as a worldwide trending topic, and he changed his Twitter icon to a picture of himself being interviewed on ESPN.

But for someone who pumped himself up pregame by listening to Rick Ross‘ braggadocio rap, Muhammad clearly prefers to let his game do the talking. And if he’s leaning in a certain direction for college, he doesn’t say much about that either.

Kentucky: “I just think I fit really well in their style of play.”

Duke: “Coach K is just a mastermind on offense.”

Arizona: “(Their freshman class is) probably No. 1 in the country.”

UCLA: “Who wouldn’t want to play with Kyle [Anderson]?”

UNLV: “Their program is really coming along. … I’m really looking at them closely.”

Of course, Shabazz can pick only one. The plan as of now is to take his three official visits – he named Duke, Kansas and Arizona as possibilities. He intends to take in all the information he can and try to get a feel as to where he best fits in.

“We pretty much want to see a program that has the chance to win, and win big,” Holmes said. “We’re looking at the pieces in the program. We’re looking at the history of the coach with college basketball and winning, and how they’re going to develop him basketball-wise and as a young man. And we want a school academically, where he can come back and finish his degree if he’s able to leave a little early.”

A great deal of Muhammad’s ease with the process likely comes from his support system, primarily his family: Both of his parents played Division I basketball, while his sister, Asia, is a professional tennis player. Shabazz and his father also cite as an asset Bishop Gorman head coach Grant Rice, whose past charges include current Bulls guard C.J. Watson.

But outward support only goes so far, which is where Shabazz’s drive to succeed kicks in.

“He’s about as hard a worker as I’ve ever seen, even at the high school level,” Rice said. “Sometimes I have to kick him out of the gym and tell him to go home. He’s got a lot of God-given ability, but he’s worked his tail off to get to this level.”

And yet, for Muhammad, there hardly seems time to stop and take a breath at the expense of continued forward thinking. Fresh off their big win over Dematha, Bishop Gorman on Saturday takes on fellow Las Vegas powerhouse Findlay Prep, which dominated No. 1 Simeon at Hoophall. Past that, Muhammad still has those three official visits to make, followed by what appears to be a difficult college decision – granted, all good problems to have.

Next year, regardless of where he ends up, we know enough about Muhammad to assume he’ll be completely focused on an NCAA national title.

But where does he see himself in, say, three years?

“I see myself in the NBA,” Muhammad said. “Trying to contribute for a world championship.”

It’s obviously just the beginning, and it truly never stops. But for Shabazz Muhammad, that’s not a problem: Neither does he.

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