When Nerlens Noel of Tilton (N.H.) reclassified from 2013 to 2012 back in February, he promptly was named the No. 1 prospect in the ESPNU 100, supplanting Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas).
Over the next few days, Muhammad's coaches, family and friends were asked over and over again about the situation while the senior remained stoic. In Bishop Gorman's next big game on Feb. 4 at the Nike Extravaganza against Whitney Young (Chicago), Muhammad let his play do the talking.
He hit a 3-pointer near the end of the first quarter, giving him 15 of the Gaels' 18 points. Muhammad had 21 first-half points as Gorman led at halftime 31-27 and at one point had 38 points to Whitney Young's 37. His final stat line of 41 points, including 6-of-6 on his 3-point shots, spoke loud and clear as if to say, "Any questions?"
The immense talent of Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 left-handed wing, is matched only by his burning desire to achieve basketball greatness. That skill and motivation, combined with his championship résumé, has earned him the 2011-2012 ESPNHS Mr. Basketball USA title.
"It's really a great honor," Muhammad said. "Nobody in Nevada was really known nationally like that. You always heard about the best players in the West being from California. I think it's really special to represent my hometown [Las Vegas] with this award."
Muhammad is the first Mr. Basketball USA from a Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association school and the first from the West Region since future NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd of St. Joseph (Alameda, Calif.) in 1991-92.
Mr. Basketball USA is chosen after all teams have finished their seasons. State championships and other postseason accolades are taken into account. Input from the Mr. Basketball USA panel is critical toward the final selection. When the Mr. Basketball USA Tracker panel tallied its final expanded ballot, Muhammad led junior Jabari Parker of Simeon (Chicago) by an 11-point margin.
Muhammad's basketball journey began well before he reached high school. He was a not-so-athletic sixth-grader battling Tourette syndrome. It was at AAU Nationals that year when he first laid eyes on a tough guard from New Jersey who inspired him to step up his game.
"I just wasn't that good in sixth grade," Muhammad said. "When I saw Kyle Anderson play for the first time, I wished I was that good. He is so skilled and can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands. If he would have won [Mr. Basketball USA honors], I would have been happy for him. That's one of my best friends."
"I remember in eighth grade he came home from a camp and I asked him, 'Did you make the Top 20?'" said Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, who at the time spent more time with his daughter, Asia Muhammad, helping to launch her tennis career than at the gym with his oldest son. "He mentioned something about the Top 40 game, but he didn't make it. He just didn't want to disappoint his dad. I remember like it was yesterday."
When Muhammad entered Bishop Gorman as a freshman, his determination led him to improve enough to contribute on a state title-winning team. As a sophomore he played a leading role on Gorman's Class 4A state title, averaging 19.5 points and 10 rebounds. As a junior, he was in the conversation for Mr. Basketball USA and National Junior Player of the Year honors until the Gaels were stunned in the state semifinals.
Ironically, Anderson was one of the legitimate contenders in the running for this honor along with junior forward Jabari Parker. For a majority of the season, Anderson trailed Muhammad in the Mr. Basketball USA Tracker with Parker only a few points behind the St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) standout. In the tracker panel's final balloting, Anderson's 93-1 record as a starter over the past three years as a prep and Parker's spectacular season for the No. 6 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 couldn't match Muhammad's overall production.
Just when it seemed like Anderson or Parker might make a push, or Noel's reclassification would make it a four-horse race, Muhammad came up with a signature performance: 37 points against No. 13 DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass.; the Whiney Young statement game; and a 30-point performance on 12-of-13 shooting in the first half of Gorman's blowout win in the state title game kept the other contenders at bay.
Muhammad's MVP performances at the McDonald's All-American Game in March and again at the Jordan Brand Classic in April were more like a coronation than an audition for the dynamic southpaw who averaged 30 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this season.
"I want to congratulate him," said Anderson, who will join his good friend at UCLA this fall. "He definitely deserves it. There is not another player out there who I would rather lose it to. He's amazing."
This prestigious honor is the final milestone in the high school portion of the Muhammad marathon as he heads from Vegas to Westwood. As Muhammad reflected on the slow journey to the top of the high school basketball world, he wanted to thank the person who's been with him every step of the way -- his father.
"This honor means that my dad being in the gym with me every day [and] the hard work has paid off," Muhammad said. "He stuck with me."