Shabazz Muhammad answers coach's challenges

LOS ANGELES -- Want to see Shabazz Muhammad do something? Tell him he can’t.

That seems to be the modus operandi lately for Muhammad, who this week has delivered resounding responses when challenged about perceived weaknesses in his game.

Muhammad, the UCLA Bruins’ star freshman and leading scorer, did it on the glass Saturday when he tied a season high with 10 rebounds in a 68-60 victory over the Stanford Cardinal in a Pac-12 game at Pauley Pavilion.

That performance came a day after coach Ben Howland said Muhammad needed to improve in rebounding, especially on the defensive end. Muhammad had a season-high seven defensive rebounds Saturday despite matching up against Stanford’s Josh Huestis, who is among the top rebounders in the conference.

Last week, Howland said Muhammad needed to play better on the defensive end. Muhammad responded with his most energized and effective defensive game of the season Thursday against California.

“I try to answer,” Muhammad said about getting challenged. “I’m such a competitive person with anything, and tonight I thought I did a really good job getting seven defensive rebounds.”

Muhammad is a budding star who came to UCLA primarily as a scorer. He certainly has proved to be that, using an array of offensive prowess to average 19.6 points per game for the season and 23.2 over the past six games.

He is shooting 49.1 percent from the field, including 48.6 percent (17-for-35) on 3-pointers. He has scored in double figures in every game he has played this season and has emerged as a clutch shooter by making big shots down the stretch in recent games.

Because of those skills, Muhammad has been projected as a one-and-done college player who will be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft. But to succeed at the next level, Muhammad realizes he needs to become a more complete player.

He said he came to UCLA to play for Howland for that reason ... and that’s exactly what is happening. He acknowledges he never had to work hard to be better than everyone else at the high school level and that Howland has pushed him.

“It’s a whole different area,” he said. “The guys in college are bigger and stronger.”

Howland apparently knows the right buttons to push. Earlier this week, Muhammad said he read in the paper that he couldn’t play defense. Against California, he shuffled his feet with vigor and rotated effectively to help ... and the man he was guarding most of the game, Richard Solomon, was 4-for-13 from the field.

So, after getting that squared away, Howland pointed out this week that Muhammad’s defensive rebounding needed improvement. Muhammad tallied 22 rebounds during the previous five games, but only five of them were on the defensive end.

“Shabazz has a tendency to leak out of there and not help his team rebound on defense like he is capable,” Howland said.

But on Saturday, Howland told Muhammad the Bruins couldn’t afford to have him leak out like that against Stanford. Huestis entered the game fifth in the Pac-12 with 9.1 rebounds per game and second in the conference with 3.6 offensive rebounds per game. Muhammad would be guarding Huestis.

“I really challenged him and said if you don’t block out, if you don’t do a good job, we’re going to lose,” Howland said.

Huestis got his rebounds, finishing with 10 total and three on the offensive glass. But if not for Muhammad reaching double figures in rebounds for only the second time this season and seven defensive rebounds -- more than he had in the previous six games combined -- Huestis would have been much more effective.

“I just had to keep Huestis off the glass and I thought I did a really good job of doing that,” Muhammad said. “I just tried to do what Coach said.”

The best part of the whole thing is that it didn’t affect Muhammad’s scoring. He had a game-high 23 points to go with his 10 rebounds and posted his second double-double of the season.

“He seems to respond to challenges pretty good,” Howland said.

Maybe for his next challenge, Howland should tell his star freshman he can’t lead UCLA to a Pac-12 title. Or a national title. Or stay in school another year.