Shabazz Muhammad: The Second Coming …of O.J. Mayo
The NCAA stirred controversy earlier this season when it initially ruled Shabazz Muhammad, the best prospect in the nation, ineligible due to
slave amateurism violations. This all added to the Shabazz hype – at the time, he sat alone atop most mock drafts for 2013. O.J. Mayo, too, was a hype machine – one of those rare household names before he was even in college (at least, if your household is full of huge basketball fans). I found the first minute of this video particularly amusing : “is this guy as good a prospect as LeBron James?” “Yes.” But despite being (allegedly) illegally paid to go to prominent Los Angeles schools, neither O.J. nor Shabazz seemed to live up to the hype in college, especially when you venture beyond their scoring totals.
With a quick glance at the box scores, you might think Shabazz is everything he was supposed to be: he’s averaging over 18-per-game and his team finished the regular season on top of the Pac-12 standings. Just the other week, in fact, the beat writer for my beloved Washington State Cougars observed the following:
Students chant “overrated” at Shabazz Muhammad, which is an odd thing to chant at the conference’s second-leading scorer.
— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) March 7, 2013
But when you look past the scoring, it becomes apparent that Shabazz is essentially one-dimensional. Specifically, of the wing players who have a shot at being drafted this year, Shabazz falls in the bottom 20% in steals, and the bottom 10% in defensive rebounds, assists, and blocks.
Ignoring the other numbers for now, Shabazz’s assist numbers are particularly alarming. We can sit and argue the value of the subjective assist stat all day, but I’m confident we can all agree that it has value. And it becomes especially important for guys, like Shabazz, who use a lot of possessions because good scorers will get double teamed in the NBA, and when they do, they need to be able to find the open man. Shabazz’s assist rate is 5.8%. That means less than six percent of his teammates’ field goals are assisted by him when he’s on the floor. That’s astronomically low, especially for someone who is supposed to be a great offensive player. To illustrate this point, here is a list of all guards who have had at least ten win shares in an NBA season while maintaining an assist rate of six or less. (there’s not an error, there are zero guys on the list.) Ha! Ok, let’s give some leeway: here’s the same list, but with the minimum assist rate moved to ten.
The list is nine seasons long. Three of them belong to Peja Stojakovic, who was basically an elite role player – one of the best spot up three shooters the league has ever seen. One belongs to Dale Ellis, who was probably a bit more offensively versatile than Peja, but was still primarily a spot up shooter. Both were good scorers, but were always surrounded by other good offensive players – Peja had C-Webb and was on Kings teams where everyone was basically a scoring threat; Ellis had Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers. In contrast, Shabazz Muhammad is supposed to be a primary offensive threat – someone who you can give the ball to and let him go to work. Plus, while he’s a good shooter, he’s not near the level of Peja or Ellis, and would likely have trouble filling roles like theirs in an offense.
Two of the nine seasons on the list belong to Chet Walker and one belongs to Doug Collins. These guys played (at least with respect to the seasons in question) before we measured steals, blocks, or turnovers; the “10” win shares are much more an estimation than they are for the other players on the list. Then we have Marques Johnson and Adrian Dantley. Whether or not these guys actually even played “guard,” their style of play is not even remotely similar to how we see guards play today. And so it’s difficult if not impossible to compare Shabazz to any of these guys. As a result, it’s apparent that Shabazz’s current inability to assist baskets ain’t gonna fly in the big league. It almost necessarily puts him in a role-player box, which is fine, but isn’t what you want from a super-high draft pick. And it’s certainly not what you want to see from your primary option on offense, especially with today’s sophisticated defenses that will undoubtedly force Muhammad to make tough passes in certain situations.
Ok, now let’s talk about Muhammad’s D. While defensive numbers are just a small part of measuring a player’s defensive contributions, they nevertheless matter. I have already noted that, out of the wings drafted in the last ten years that stole the ball at 1.5 times per pace-adjusted 40 minutes or less, none have been all-stars. Shabazz is below 1.0. Things begin to look even worse when we look at his poor shot blocking numbers. Sure, shot blocking isn’t particularly important when we’re evaluating shooting guard/small forward types, but it can be indicative of defensive effort and ability. And just like steals, history is not very kind to wings who can’t block shots in college. Specifically, if we look at wings who blocked 0.4 or less shots per pace adjusted 40 from 2002 to 2012 (Shabazz blocked less than 0.2), none have been all-stars, and the best of the bunch have only been marginally successful (Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, and Kevin Martin, for example), and certainly unable to be the best player on a good team.
And believe me, I realize that talking in abstract concepts like this can be silly. Despite history, which by the way only goes back ten years, a shooting guard’s blocks or steals per minute shouldn’t sway a team whether to take the guy or not. But having poor defensive stats all around – and I can do the same exercise with his poor defensive rebounding – does raise serious questions about Muhammad’s defense. Maybe someone with access to Synergy can shed more light here, but since Shabazz’s quickness and athleticism are questionable – and if you haven’t watched him play, believe me his quickness and athleticism are questionable (julienrodger from A Substitute for War has written a couple of good articles on the subject – look here and here), I’m not sure he wouldn’t be a defensive liability in the NBA.
So when you put it together you have a skilled scorer who is crafty though not particularly athletic, who couldn’t find the open man if he had five guys guarding him, and who has provided no evidence to suggest he’s even an average defender. This just doesn’t sound like a top five prospect or a game-changing star/primary option.
Of course, like with Ben McLemore, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t take Shabazz in the first round. I’d probably even take him in the lottery. He’s a good and versatile scorer. He hustles, and he steals a lot of boards on the offensive end. He obviously has a lot going for him, and I think he could be a decent to solid NBA player. Hell, O.J. Mayo is a decent to solid NBA player. But he never lived up to his superstar hype. And I’m not so sure Shabazz will either.