UCLA alums Muhammad, LaVine excited to unite in NBA

Shabazz Muhammad (right) led UCLA in scoring in 2012-13. Zach LaVine, by contrast, started only one game in Westwood. Regardless of those differences, the UCLA alums are equally motivated to prove themselves this season with the Timberwolves.

Gary A. Vasquez

MINNEAPOLIS — They were both ballyhooed recruits coming out of high school on the West Coast. They both spent a lone, taxing season at UCLA. They’re both Timberwolves youngsters in the midst of a possible franchise rebuild.

So despite a slight difference in age, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine are walking the same path to hoops primacy.

"We’re definitely going to share some experiences," said LaVine, the 13th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

The pair of rim-attacking, physically gifted former Bruins first met last season when Muhammad was back in So-Cal to visit former teammates Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson (also both first-round picks last month). Muhammad and LaVine worked out together then, a precursor to this week’s pre-Las Vegas Summer League practices.

Muhammad, now 21, has been through this particular wringer before: the draft frenzy, summer league, training camp and the challenges that come with a player’s first year in the NBA — especially when he’s not even old enough to go out with his teammates to the bar.

"I definitely tell him it’s a hard thing, especially how young we are," Muhammad said. "He’s 19 years old, and I was 20 when I came out — not even 21. "I’m obviously going to take him under my wing."

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Muhammad was the top prep recruit in the country coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas two years ago. LaVine, a four-star prospect, was acclaimed on a more local scale, ranking as Washington’s top prep player.

Muhammad led UCLA in scoring in 2012-13, starting 30 of 32 games. LaVine, by contrast, started only one game for coach Steve Alford and played sporadically throughout the season.

Muhammad dealt with the frustrations of an early season suspension and concerns over his reputation as a selfish player. LaVine endured the angst that came with limited minutes behind the head coach’s son, guard Bryce Alford.

The Wolves acquired Muhammad 14th overall in a draft-day deal last year. LaVine went to them one spot higher than that this year.

The pair even will attend the NBA’s annual rookie transition program together; Muhammad has to participate again after being kicked out of last year’s symposium.

"He had some ups and downs just like every rookie has," said LaVine, who averaged 9.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game for the Bruins last season. "He said there’s going to be ups and downs. ‘You’re a rookie. You’re young. In summer league, you’re going to make good plays and bad plays, but you can’t put your head down on one play,’ and I’m not that type of person to do it."

Wednesday night’s free, open-to-the-public scrimmage exhibited the pair’s drive and synergy for about 6,000 spectators to see firsthand.

At one point, the two exchanged rim-rocking jams on three consecutive trips up and down the floor. During an evening-closing slam dunk exhibition, Muhammad threw a pass off the backboard for LaVine to throw home.

"He was going off, so I said ‘I’ll show them a little something, too,’" LaVine said. "I tried to tell him ‘hey, slow down a little bit, man. It’s a practice still.’"

Said Muhammad: "I was like ‘you’re turning up the pace, I’ve got to turn up the pace.’ But it was really fun. He’s a tremendous player."

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But Muhammad can’t be the only guiding influence for LaVine present inside the Target Center. After all, he’s only a year older than his de facto protege and has strides of his own left to make.

Developing Minnesota’s young contingent, coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said, is primarily up to him and his staff.

"I think when it comes down to a guy that’s been out for a year, Shabazz is still trying to figure it out," Saunders said. "The guys that help guys like LaVine are the coaches, maybe veteran-type players that have been there and had great success.

"I think more than anything, it’s going to be the relationship you have with your coach and the confidence we instill in him. We’ll also be in a situation where they have to know that when they make mistakes, they’re corrected and there’s consequences for not playing the right way."

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