With so many equally plausible options likely to be available to the Milwaukee Bucks when their #15 draft choice rolls around, we thought it would be a good idea to delve a bit deeper into two high-profile prospects expected to fall in Milwaukee's range. In part 1, Steve von Horn and Dan Sinclair discussed the potential of Miami point guard Shane Larkin, a talented and polished player with major size concerns. Another equally polarizing player is UCLA small forward Shabazz Muhammad, who carried huge expectations into his freshman season but fell short of greatness for a multitude of reasons. Was his rough time in college just an aberration, distracting attention from his obvious talent, or did the tougher competition expose significant weaknesses in his game and an immature attitude? Steve and Dan tired to hash it all out.
Steve: Before we debate the merits of drafting Shabazz Muhammad, I want you to close your eyes for a second and think back to the summer of 2012. At that point, Muhammad had emerged as the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation and he had earned the universal support of NBA scouts and talent evaluators. People where watching his game very closely, and they liked what they saw. He had top-3 pick written all over him prior to his freshman season at UCLA. If you keep your eyes closed and press that shiny red button on draft night, would you be ecstatic about a major wing prospect playing for our Milwaukee Bucks???
Okay, now you can open your eyes again and take a few Tylenol, because this is definitely not the summer of 2012 anymore for Shabazz. Two birthdays (kind of) and 27 assists later, the golden idol of the draft class has been cast off as a false idol. His advanced stat projection is fairly horrendous due to his lack of contributions outside of scoring, and Kevin Pelton of ESPN and Basketball Prospectus has branded him as a seriously overrated prospect. His draft stock is now reportedly in a free fall for No. 15 and beyond, but here I am holding the dice with a grin on my face, ready to gamble on a scouting reports that expired 12 months ago. So, are you ready to get a bit crazy and roll the dice with me? I mean, *puts on shades* *folds arms in a dramatic pose* how Shabazz could it be?
Dan: In most cases I'd be right next to you at the table, dumping all my chips on Shabazz for the win. College and professional scouts are, generally speaking, not dumb, and the consensus said this guy was an elite recruit and future star in the NBA. One so-so year in college shouldn't destroy all that goodwill. But I can't help but feel like, even if the scouts were right about Muhammad's talent when it comes to scoring, they overestimated just how big an impact he could have on a team. It's not that he came into college and struggled to exert total dominance over every game. He became a one-dimensional player and couldn't even do that one thing particularly well. The high school careers of most NBA prospects get little more than a cursory glance to confirm that, yes, they were indeed highly-recruited superstars at the prep level. But with Shabazz, it's maybe the biggest thing he has going for him, along with decent three-point shooting and foul-drawing ability. Considering just the factors we generally use to evaluate prospects, I have a hard time seeing him as just a victim of circumstance who will greatly outperform his depressed draft position. He looks more like the kind of guy you hope could be a moderate boost to your roster but end up shopping two years into his rookie deal. Of course, he's partly the victim of a college basketball scene that's often desperate for narratives and despises anybody who betrays its pure, love-of-the-game intentions. Negative attention is going to be heaped on anybody who doesn't express pure euphoria at a teammate's game-winning shot, and that stuff lingers around draft time. Putting that aside, do you think he can regain his scoring touch or expand his game to compensate?
Steve: I'm still here, standing in the casino with some dice in my hand, ready to bet on Shabazz, but I totally get why you're hesitant to join me. Muhammad is definitely a one-dimensional player, and there's no way around it. I've recently learned to embrace his one dimension (scoring), and here's why:
(1) Scorers are routinely overpaid on the free agent market, and I don't want the Bucks to overpay for score-first guys. Monta Ellis posted 19.2 points per game on 49.3% TS last season in Milwaukee, the Bucks offered him the equivalent of a three-year, $36 million contract, and Monta flat-out turned it down. There are multiple levels of insane behavior at work in that example, but the biggest one for me is that it's still really costly to acquire any type of lead scorer on the open market. For this reason, I've come around on the concept of drafting a score-first player in the draft to help the team with cost control on the roster. Shabazz may not be worth what Monta is in terms of shot creation skills, but I think he could easily fill those shoes as a "designated scorer." Rookie deals are cheap, Shabazz can score in multiple ways, and I'm willing to let him slide in and do what he does best. I have only one request: score more efficiently than Monta or Brandon. I think he can do it, and his price tag isn't even half of what either swag twin will get on the next deal.
(2) The UCLA system may have depressed Muhammad's numbers a bit. He was forced to slow things down and play a lot on the half court. He also had to play off the ball and work to get open using screens, rather than just dominate the ball on the wing like he was used to doing in high school. Shabazz mentioned in his "NBA Job Interview" on Grantland that the system was a radical change for him, but he also noted that he learned new skills like finding pace and creating space while using screens in half court sets. If the Bucks stick with their rapid pace and use him in transition, allow him to use more possessions as a ball handler, add in some screen action to exploit his new skillls and get him into the post at least three or four times a contest, I think he could improve upon his so-so year at UCLA. Am I making this all up as a go along? Absolutely. But I do think an up-tempo system and the better spacing in the NBA will help him look better.
(3) If his defense is as bad as his stats suggest -- I've never really heard complaints about his work ethic or anything, but he didn't grab a lot of steals or record a lot of blocks -- Larry Sanders is behind him to minimize that issue.
Dan: The overpaid scorer point makes sense, but I wonder if, in a rush to avoid falling into the typical free-agent trap of overpaying scorers, we're inventing a market inefficiency that doesn't really exist. Yes, Shabazz can put up big per-game numbers in the points column, but unless he does it better than Ellis or Jennings, it's moot. Even if he's getting paid less to do it, he's still dead weight, even on a rookie contract (albeit much easier to trade). All signs point to him being a better scorer than either guy (though a renewed focus on three-point shooting could do wonders for Jennings' efficiency), but couldn't the Bucks also help the offense by shifting more shots into Ersan Ilyasova's hands outside the arc? Or finding another guy with good metrics but middling counting stats, a la Mike Dunleavy? That stuff might be easier said than done, but both would avoid the opportunity cost of drafting Shabazz just so you can pay him less to be equally ineffective. That's assuming his inefficiency is going to be a constant going forward, which certainly doesn't have to be the case. Shooting is the one thing most prospects improve on over their careers, and Shabazz already does some other things on offense quite well.
There's no arguing with history when it comes to prospects from Ben Howland's UCLA system. You can almost bank on him outperforming statistical projections for that reason alone. I just wish we would have seen a little more of that "evolution" he spoke to in his play throughout the season. By the time he got into the heart of the Bruins' conference schedule, he wasn't doing much more than shooting. The lack of assists gets a lot of attention, but his block and steal percentages were bad as well. It's hard to be so one-dimensional even if you're trying, and by the end of his season it seemed like the only think Muhammad was trying to do was rack up points. Maybe you can chalk it up to a rough year in college. After all, his coach got fired almost immediately after their season ended.
Steve: I've talked myself into a weird space now, because I was the guy who routinely noted that Tobias Harris didn't do much other than score and often hurt the Bucks on defense as a small forward. Now I want someone who may do the exact same thing, but may actually be a real small forward or shooting guard. Then again, I think we would all undo the Harris trade if we could, so maybe this is the best chance to recapture that feeling with a wing scorer. Would you be willing to just pretend Shabazz is just Tobias Harris the small forward prospect? Would that help grease the wheels on this thing?
Dan: The Tobias Harris comparison is interesting. Harris had his flaws, but there was no doubt the guy had a knack for scoring that seemed petty special, especially considering his young age. And for all the talk of versatile contributors and athleticism and what-not, we shouldn't forget that efficient scoring remains the most valuable talent a basketball player can have. Muhammad's ability to create a lot of shot opportunities for himself is a skill in itself, but it might not be well suited for this team. The Bucks definitely need somebody other than Jennings or Ellis who can get the ball during a possession and set up any sort of decent scoring opportunity. My worry is that Shabazz isn't going to create any better opportunities than those two have been able to. There's some value in having a third guy capable of doing it at all, but not enough that it's going to move the needle much with this roster.
If you're trying to maximize the talents of a guy like Shabazz, you're probably best off pairing him with a good defensive center (check) and a floor-spacing, pass-first point guard (half check). You've got to give him the keys from time to time and see what he can do. It's going to take time, and if he doesn't pan out it's a lot of wasted effort and resources. Among guys likely to be available at #15, Shabazz does probably offer relatively high star potential, so maybe he's the best pick to roll the dice on. I just wish there was more to go on than year-old scouting reports. But hey, stealth tank if it doesn't work out, right?
Steve: *Nods* *Rolls dice* *Prays the Bucks succeed at making their own good luck for once*