Shabazz Muhammad started slow for UCLA, but he's not the team's… (Jason Redmond / Associated…)
A few weeks ago, Shabazz Muhammad looked slow, heavy and somewhat overmatched. He was not what was expected. But now, heading into Saturday's home game against Fresno State, he has emerged as UCLA's leading scorer.
Although the transformation was probably not a surprise, the source of the turnaround was odd: three former USC players.
Ron Holmes, Muhammad's father, and two other former USC basketball players — Jacque Hill and Don Carfino — helped Muhammad sharpen his game during almost daily private workouts in Westwood.
"Shabazz is more like family than just a kid that I know," said Hill, a first-team All-American guard who played alongside Holmes in the 1980s.
"If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near UCLA," Hill added with a laugh.
Some late-night sessions lasted into the early morning as they focused on footwork, moving without the ball, mid-range shooting, how to beat a defender off the dribble and more.
"There's nothing that can substitute for experience, and I think the three of us have a little more than Shabazz," said Carfino, who played with Hill at USC.
They each felt that Muhammad was struggling in part because he was trying to play in college as he did in high school: by bulling through weaker, smaller opponents rather than outplaying them.
"He got a rude awakening," Holmes said.
At the same time they decided to help him, Muhammad was cleared to lift weights with his lower body after suffering a high ankle sprain that had hindered him during the summer and into the fall.
But not only could Muhammad lift weights, he could also go full-out on conditioning. He began running sprints after practice and spending hours on a treadmill and an exercise bike.
Coupled with a drastically changed diet — no fast food, sugary drinks or juices — he started to shed weight, losing about 13 pounds to come down to 219.
"He understands his body is his investment, and he really started to understand the importance of taking care of it and fueling it right," said Brent Tanaka, the team's strength and conditioning coach.
In practices, his explosiveness and stamina returned. And in games, Muhammad started playing up to the reputation of a player considered the best overall recruit in the country last year.
He scored a career-high 25 points against Prairie View A&M on Dec. 15 and followed it up with 21 against Long Beach State, both blowout UCLA wins. His per-game average is up to 17.8.
And in both games, Muhammad looked better in every aspect, especially conditioning and his ability to break down defenders.
Muhammad has been a whole new player, but the scary part, Holmes said, is that his son will reach another level soon.
"By the time conference comes," Holmes said, "you're going to see a whole new Shabazz."