NEW YORK -- The Shabazz Muhammad Era finally has begun at UCLA -- if you want to call one season an era, that is. But fans expecting one of the nation's most explosive freshmen to live up to the hype in his first career game were disappointed by Muhammad's debut in the Bruins' 78-70 loss to Georgetown on Monday night at the Barclays Center.
Sure, Muhammad, the No. 2-rated recruit in the 2012 class according to Scout.com and the prize of UCLA's vaunted recruiting class, scored 15 points in his highly-anticipated unveiling in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, and at times he looked like the can't-miss star whose highlight reels have become the stuff of Internet lore.
But there also were moments when Muhammad looked like an overmatched 19-year-old facing a quality Big East opponent in his first taste of college action, and as the Bruins dropped to 2-1 on the season, it became clear that both Muhammad and his team have room for improvement.
"It was really exciting getting out on the court for the first time, even though I thought we didn't play as well as we can possibly play as a team," said Muhammad, who made 5 of 10 shots. "Just to get the jitters out and getting comfortable back with playing college basketball for the first time was a good experience, and hopefully I can do better."
The road to Muhammad's first game was anything but a smooth one. A high ankle sprain forced the consensus national high school player of the year to miss most of UCLA's summer workouts, and an NCAA investigation into Muhammad's recruitment forced him to stay stateside during the team's exhibition trip to China in late August.
In October, an injured shoulder sidelined Muhammad, causing him to miss significant practice time leading up to the season opener, and in early November, the NCAA ruled the 6-foot-6 swingman ineligible after learning that he accepted travel and lodging during unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina.
After repaying the 1,600 in impermissible benefits and sitting out the first three games of the season, Muhammad was granted eligibility on Friday, but all of the time missed showed on the court, where he appeared a step slow and somewhat out of sync with his teammates.
"I actually didn't plan to play him as many minutes as I did," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "He had missed two-plus weeks with a shoulder injury where he couldn't really get a lot of conditioning in because of the jarring of the shoulder, and so I thought he did a very good job, considering.
"You can see that he's got a lot of work to put in to catch up conditioning-wise to where he wants to be, but he did a good job in his first outing."
Muhammad wasn't in the starting lineup, but he played starters' minutes, logging 24:09 off the bench. Muhammad made his first shot, a fast-break, pull-up jumper from the left wing with 13:20 left in the first half. Then, with 12:27 left, Muhammad tallied one of his two assists with a slick pass to a cutting David Wear, who tied the game at 14 with a two-handed dunk.
The Bruins pulled even with Georgetown five more times in the first half, the last such instance coming at 26-26 with 3:13 left, but never led as the Hoyas' advantage grew to as many as 14 early in the second half.
With UCLA battling just to stay in the game, there were limited opportunities for Muhammad to show off the highlight-reel skill that some expected to see, but the Las Vegas native offered a few glimpses of the athleticism that wowed scouts across the country.
With 27 seconds left in the first half, Muhammad threw down a thunderous one-handed tomahawk dunk after a Kyle Anderson steal landed right in his lap under the basket. He also was fouled twice on would-be poster dunks -- once with 16:11 left in the game and again with UCLA trailing 75-66 with 1:02 to go. He made two second-half 3-pointers and converted on a nifty left-hand hook from the right block.
That said, for every moment of enlightenment, there also was a rookie mistake. With 11:16 left in the first half, Muhammad, trying to run the break, took the ball aggressively to the rim but was denied by Georgetown forward Greg Whittington, who tied him up for a jump ball. The sophomore Whittington got the best of the frosh again later, altering a Muhammad jumper with 4:27 left in the first half.
Muhammad's most egregious miscue came in the second half in the middle of a 12-0 Georgetown run. Immediately following a Howland timeout with the Bruins trailing by 10, Markel Starks picked off a lazy Muhammad pass, taking it the other way for two of his game-high 23 points.
Some of Muhammad's struggles may have been due to jitters, and some may not have been struggles at all, but rather, him not living up to the unrealistic expectations placed on him so early in his career. But most of all, it seems like Muhammad just needs time to develop chemistry with a group of fellow freshmen who are just as used to being the No. 1 option as he is.
With all eyes on Muhammad, it's easy to forget that Bruins small forward Kyle Anderson was the No. 4-rated player in the 2012 class, and five-star center Tony Parker also was a top-20 recruit. Another member of the Bruins' freshman coup, four-star swingman Jordan Adams, is the team's leading scorer through four games with 23.5 points per game, and had 22 on Monday.
UCLA's freshmen appeared most fluid in transition and seemed to get bogged down at times in half-court sets, struggling with the Georgetown 2-3 zone. But Howland, an unbending advocate of the half-court offense, isn't altering the game plan to cater to the up-tempo tendencies of some new guys. So Muhammad and his comrades have no choice but to adjust to the game plan while they adjust to each other, continuing Tuesday against Georgia, which lost to No. 1 Indiana in the other semifinal.
"It doesn't feel good inside," Muhammad said of missing out on a chance to play the Hoosiers. "I really wanted to get a shot them. But (we know) that we're really not ready yet, and we're going to practice and really get this together, and I think we're going to be a really good team."
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