By Jesse Granger

Shabazz Muhammad has played the best basketball of his life in Las Vegas.

The second year NBA player lit up the Cox Pavilion scoreboard Thursday for the Minnesota Timberwolves, scoring a game-high 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while adding 3 rebounds and a pair of steals.

Shabazz Muhammad battles for a rebound along with teammate Glen Robinson III.

Shabazz Muhammad battles for a rebound along with teammate Glen Robinson III.

Muhammad has carried his team throughout the 2014 NBA Summer League, averaging 16.2 points per game and is one of the vocal leaders on the court. It’s a giant leap forward for him after a thoroughly disappointing rookie season in Minnesota.

During his rookie campaign, Muhammad averaged a mere 3.9 points per game. He only appeared in 37 games and never started. When he did see the floor, it was brief – 7.8 minutes per game to be exact.

Midway through the year, he was relegated to the NBA D-League for a week. He shined in four games and returned to the Association with a new energy, but still rarely produced on the court.

So Muhammad’s dominant performance in this week’s summer league tournament may shock NBA fans across the country, but it comes as no surprise to Las Vegas locals who watched him rise to stardom just a quick 20-minute drive up the Interstate 215 to Bishop Gorman High School.

In his time at Bishop Gorman, Muhammad led the Gaels to three Nevada State Championships in four years, while the team’s collective record during his tenure was an unbelievable 111-17. His senior season, Muhammad averaged 29 points per game, including his final performance – a 36 point offensive clinic in the state championship game, 30 of which came in the first half.

His play drew national attention and by the time Muhammad graduated he was the No. 2 player in the nation on ESPN’s top-100 rankings, behind only Nerlens Noel.

From there, Muhammad took a one-year trip to UCLA, and landed in the NBA where his career has yet to get off the ground. Maybe a trip to Las Vegas is exactly what he needed to propel his game in the right direction.

“It’s great,” Muhammad said. “It’s obviously a great opportunity for me and my teammates to come out here to Las Vegas and represent.”

In the first game back in his home city, Muhammad produced a double-double with 27 points and 11 rebounds, but the experience of returning to Las Vegas has been much more than on-court success.

“My parents live here, and everybody, all of my old friends from high school and middle school,” he said. “It’s always fun to get to see them, and it’s a great opportunity for me.”

While the summer league is often a proving ground where roster spots are won and lost, Muhammad is in no danger of being left off the Timberwolves roster. He currently sits behind only Corey Brewer on the depth chart, and after a year of experience could be posed to earn more playing time.

“I think I gained a lot of experience from last year, even though I was on the bench,” he said. “I learned how to slow the game down.”

Muhammad is listed as a small forward, but standing only 6-foot-6 he is a bit undersized for the position. He feels that his biggest area for improvement in order to become more of a guard is his dribbling and passing.

“I’ve just been working on my ball skills, and just becoming a better guard,” he said. “(Improving on) my shooting can always help, and overall there’s something I can always get better at.”

If he can find a way to keep his Las Vegas form going into the games that actually count, Muhammad could develop into a national star as well.

imageBy Jesse Granger

One of the bright spots of the Runnin’ Rebels disappointing 2013-14 season was an energetic transfer from the University of Connecticut.

Roscoe Smith brought intensity and heart every night he took to the floor, and breathed energy into a team that suffered through a season full of missed expectations. Smith’s theatrics and leadership made him a fan favorite, particularly screaming in opponents’ faces as he jumped up and down while guarding the inbound pass.

What better place for UNLV’s theatrical leader to continue his basketball career than Hollywood, California – with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Smith made his professional debut last Friday in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in front of a sold out crowd.

“I played in front of a lot of UNLV fans, and to represent the UNLV program, it was definitely very interesting,” Smith said. “I was very anxious, but I slowed down and let the game come to me.”

He started the game on the bench, but checked in at the 4:36 mark of the first quarter. He was held scoreless in the first half, missing both of his shots, and looked uncomfortable on the floor.

“The biggest difference is the talent level,” he said. “There are a lot of great guys out here that can play basketball. Some guys are more physical than others, some are quicker than others and some jump higher than others.”

His scoring drought ended in the third quarter when he slammed home a two-handed dunk, and his game opened up from there.

“After I got that dunk everything just started feeling like it was back to normal,” Smith said. “Once you get that first bucket you’re like ok, it’s just basketball. I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

He ended the game with 8 points on 3-of-5 shooting, and added 2 rebounds and a block in 14 minutes of playing time. A solid outing for his first game in the NBA, especially after the criticism he received when choosing to forgo his senior season at UNLV to enter the NBA draft.

“I feel good about (the decision),” said Smith, who is averaging 4.0 points in 11.3 minutes per game after the first three games of the Summer League. “I think I had an impressive year at UNLV. Coach Rice and all of the other UNLV staff members definitely had a lot of confidence in me. They definitely helped me improve, not just as a basketball player but as a person. Today for the first time as a professional athlete I think I did pretty well. I don’t have any complaints at all.”

Making his debut in Las Vegas could have put added pressure on Smith, but he felt it only helped him.

“Coming to Las Vegas, I feel like this is still my first family, so they just support me. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just trying to improve as a player every day.”

His trip back home even allowed Smith to catch up with some old teammates.

“I saw a few guys from the team that came and supported me.” Smith said. “I talked to a few guys yesterday. I’m going to watch Kevin Olekaibe and cheer for him. I’m his biggest fan, and I wish him the biggest luck right now.”

Similarly to Smith, teammate Khem Birch also chose to leave school early and went undrafted. The two remain close, and are trying to help each other as they make the next step in their careers.

“I actually talked to Khem all of last night. I experienced it first, so I’m going to give him a pep talk about it and what to do. Just be aggressive all day and everything will work out.”

Today marks one week of one of the most hectic seven days I’ve ever experienced in 27 years of sports journalism. It also marks the beginning of another one.

But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Bishop Gorman-graduate Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III power under the basket for the Timberwolves.

Between providing analytical content for sports-betting websites, covering the NBA and high school summer baseball, I honestly am not sure how I was able to fit gym time in – or be motivated to even go – but I supposed I have my fitness-physique competing son to thank for that.

Thank God for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, otherwise I’d never get any time off. The day before and two days after the Midsummer Classic are the only days of the calendar year you won’t find anything intriguing to bet on, thus I don’t have to provide analysis for ChrisJordanSports.com. Granted, you can bet on the WNBA, and even Summer League hoops, but it’s not of any interest for the people I deal with.

That’s fine by me, cause then I can enjoy my annual three days off.

That’s no typo – I get three days off a year. No vacations. I work New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Toss in everyone’s birthday we celebrate – you name it. Sure, I’ve taken trips, but I worked every one of ‘em.

The day I got married, I was sippin’ Patron and writing sports-betting analysis. Honeymoon, sippin’ wine and writing sports-betting analysis. Trips to New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Jamaica… I was sippin’ something and writing sports betting analysis.

Could be a good reason I’m separated, but that’s a whole other blog.

But this past week was pretty damn hectic, given the nature and urgency of the subjects I was covering.

Last Wednesday I was summoned to the LeBron James Skills Academy, with hopes Cleveland’s reborn hero would show up for a moment or two. He did. Hopping around four different courts to play alongside some of the top high school basketball players in the nation. On Thursday, raced out to Clark High School to interview New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, as he finally spoke on the Carmelo Anthony situation. At the time, ‘Melo was unsigned.

Backtrack for a moment with me, to Monday, when I took a one-day assignment to cover the Cavaliers for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and Cleveland.com. I was to cover the showdown between last month’s top two picks in the NBA Draft: Cleveland’s No. 1 Andrew Wiggins and Milwaukee’s No. 2 Jabari Parker. The game was on Friday.

Friday morning, the LeBron bomb dropped. That’s when thing intensified.

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Cleveland Cavaliers No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins works on his spot-up drills during a practice session at Desert Oasis High School.

Getting reaction quotes, and trying to interview the one person every member of the media wanted to interview was wild. Cavaliers coach David Blatt went from first-year coach with the No. 1 pick (Wiggins), to LeBron’s next coach. Need I go on? I was retained for the next three days, covering the Cavaliers, and also had to do a follow-up with Jackson, for The Associated Press, once Anthony agreed to terms with the Knicks. I also contacted Glenn Robinson III’s hometown paper and agreed to a deal for a feature story on him, now that he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Monday rolled around and I was making phone calls and messaging with parents for results from the final Connie Mack games of the regular season, so I could write my preview for the Las Vegas Review Journal, which ran in Tuesday’s paper and online at NevadaPreps.com

Here we are seven days later, and I’m gearing up for another run, chock full of diversity: Connie Mack State Tournament through Saturday, the NBA Summer League is still going through Monday, the sports-betting analysis starts back up on Friday and when it’s all said and done, I will get ready to cover Team USA’s basketball team, as it preps for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

So even over my prized three days off from the sports-betting gig I’ve done for 14 years, you better believe I’m doing something – sippin’ on something, writing about sports.

- W.G. Ramirez

By Jesse Granger

(Editors note: Jesse Granger is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter who has worked for Associated Press and Orange County Register this College Basketball season. He is also a columnist for the Rebel Yell. Jesse compiled this capsule at the conclusion of the Mountain West Conference tournament, but due to computer issues, we were not able to load it overnight. We apologize for the delay in this preview of Mountain West teams making the Big Dance, but wanted our readers to see Jesse’s insight)

What does New Mexico’s 64-58 win over San Diego State mean for each side’s NCAA Tournament futures?

With the Mountain West in the midst of a down year, the league will likely only receive two bids to the big dance – New Mexico and San Diego State.   The two teams faced off for the third time in three weeks Saturday, with the Lobos coming out on top to claim their third straight Mountain West Tournament title.

The win boosts New Mexico’s stock to the highest its been since the pre-season, and has the Lobos in prime position to make the post-season run that fell through their fingers in 2013.

The loss will no doubt drop San Diego State from its No. 8 spot in the rankings, but the Aztecs were far from the only top seeded team to fall short in their conference tournament this week.

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New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow (Photo courtesy Mountain West/NCAA)

New Mexico

Record: 27-6

Last 10: 9-1

RPI: 18

What Craig Neal thinks: “Hopefully you beat the eighth ranked team in the country, and you were 20, and there were a lot of teams that lost from 12 to 20 before us.  It’s all about seeding, all about the draw, so hopefully it will help us.  One thing I can say is I got a pretty good basketball team.”

What will happen: New Mexico’s win not only gives the Lobos the automatic bid into the tournament, but it gives them a legitimate claim as the best team coming out of the conference.  In three meetings with the Aztecs, the Lobos dominated 110 of the 120 minutes played, and would have swept San Diego State if not for a last minute run in Viejas.

The Lobos however, are lacking when it comes to quality non-conference wins.  Their only top-50 RPI win outside of San Diego State was a 63-54 win over Cincinnati.  New Mexico split with in-state rival New Mexico State, which doesn’t help its case, and their next best win is against Marquette who is a far cry from the Big East contender from years past.

The bottom line is New Mexico will likely fall somewhere in the five to seven range.  The Lobos should avoid the dreaded eight-nine matchup that would pit them against a top seed in the following round, but could be punished for their past failures in the big dance.

Possible 1st Round Matchups for New Mexico

North Dakota State- R

PI: 36

Nebraska- RPI: 45

Xavier- RPI: 46

Providence- RPI: 50

Southern Methodist- RPI: 55

Thames

San Diego State’s Xavier Thames (Photo Courtesy Mountain West/NCAA)

Record: 29-3

Last 10: 8-2

RPI: 14

What Steve Fisher thinks: “I would hope that we would be a top-four seed.  I can’t tell you.  I got no magic wand in terms of who’s going to put us where, but I think our whole season we’ve done a pretty good job of going out and competing and winning, and winning in different environments against different leagues.”

“My hope is that both of us can get into this next tournament and win, and prove that we have teams in the Mountain West Conference that compete not only within the league, but can compete nationally with anybody.”

What will happen: Despite losing to New Mexico two, and nearly three, out of the three games this year, San Diego State owns the more impressive resume.  The Aztecs were the more consistent team, and racked up major signature wins early in the season.

San Diego State’s resume trumps the Lobos with a single game.  The Aztecs 61-57 win over the No. 10 Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence is one of the best non-conference wins in all of the NCAA.  Kansas is currently battling for a two or three seed, and is heralded as one of the favorites to win it all.  Couple that with an impressive 86-80 neutral site win over No. 14 Creighton and the Aztecs have plenty of wins over quality opposition.

San Diego State’s record speaks for itself, and the Fisher will likely get his wish.  To snub the Aztecs of a top-four seed would be criminal by the committee.  The ceiling isn’t much higher than a four, but the chance to play in San Diego for the opening games could be an even bigger prize for the Aztecs.

Possible 1st Round Matchups for San Diego State

Manhattan- RPI: 62

New Mexico State- RPI: 78

Tulsa- RPI: 81

Western Michigan- RPI: 82

Mercer- RPI: 83

No. 4 UNLV (20-12, 11-8 Mountain West) vs. No. 1 San Diego State (28-3, 16-2)

WHEN: Friday 6 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network RADIO: ESPN Radio 1100/98.9 FM

SEASON SERIES: San Diego State swept the regular-season series, winning by 11 on Jan. 18 in San Diego, 63-52, and on March 5 in Las Vegas, 73-64.

RoscoeKEY PLAYERS: UNLV: Dejean-Jones (13.7 ppg.), Birch (11.7 ppg., 10.1 rpg., 3.7  bpg.) and Smith (11.2 ppg. 11.1 rpg.)  SDST: Thames (16.9 ppg., 3.1 apg., 39.6 3FG%), Davis (8 ppg., 10.0 rpg.), Shepard (12.3 ppg., 5.2 rpg.)

KEY FACTOR in this game for UNLV: Bryce Dejean-Jones rose to the occasion in the quarterfinals against Wyoming, coming off the bench to score 22 points, to lead the Runnin’ Rebels to a 71-67 win. The Rebels will need their star guard to upstage San Diego State’s star guard, league player of the year Xavier Thames.

KEY FACTOR in this game for San Diego State: Cleaning the glass is essential for the Aztecs, as they’ll want to limit the Rebels’ second-chance opportunities. San Diego State’s aggressive defensive nature could force the Rebels to make poor shot selections, so it’s up to Josh Davis to bang with Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch to get rebounds.

NOTABLE: UNLV, which has an all-time record of 56-17 (.767) in conference tournament play, improved to 13-1 all-time in the quarterfinals of the MW Tournament. Its lone loss, ironically, came in 2009 to tonight’s opponent – San Diego State. The Runnin’ Rebels, who are 2-5 against the Aztecs all-time in MW Tournament play, have lost four straight to San Diego State in the event. And while the Aztecs are 2-0 versus UNLV in the MW semifinals, the Runnin’ Rebels are 8-4 all-time in the semifinals.

UNLV COACH DAVE RICE: On San Diego State - As soon as the Wyoming game ended, we started thinking about San Diego State. They’re a fantastic offensive rebounding team, they’re so well balanced. They’ve got a group that’s experienced. I’ve got so much respect for Xavier Thames and Josh Davis – two fifth-year seniors that provide leadership. They’ve got guys who come off the bench who understand their roles and do their jobs.

Biggest Concerns - Their offensive rebounding is a huge factor, making sure we handle their backcourt pressure. But the biggest thing is the health of Khem Birch because you know how important Khem is to our team.

Biggest Confidence - The fact we’re a resilient group that has always bounced back from adversity. Just like the adversity of last week playing without Roscoe Smith for the entire week and then having the Bryce Dejean-Jones suspension and losing two games and coming up against a team that we knew would be difficult to play against in Wyoming, but we bounced back and fought our way to a victory.