Gym dandy comes to Santa Rosa

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT


Jeremy Russotti found a way to do something practically no one else in America has been able to accomplish. He stopped Shabazz Muhammad from dunking.
 

Granted, Russotti needed an elastic harness, looped around Muhammad’s waist, to keep the basketball prodigy below the rim.
It was one of the many forms of abuse that Russotti inflicted on Muhammad in the Sonoma Academy gym Sunday, all in an attempt to make the 18-year-old an unstoppable basketball machine.
 

“It’s not my normal comfort zone,” Muhammad said. “But it’s great. It’s trying to listen and absorb and learn a lot of stuff.”
It isn’t every weekend that the next hoops superstar works out in sleepy Sonoma County.
 

If you follow college basketball — and especially college basketball recruiting — closely, then you know about Shabazz Muhammad. After leading Bishop Gorman High School of Las Vegas to three Nevada state championships, he emerged as one of the top two recruits in the country this year, along with Nerlens Noel of Everett, Mass.
 

Muhammad, 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, is fast, tenacious and explosive. He is projected as one of the top three picks in the 2013
NBA draft, and perhaps the first overall.
 

First, Muhammad will play at UCLA, which won a fierce competition for his services against the likes of Kentucky and Duke.
His decision, and the recruiting process, were not without controversy. The NCAA reportedly is looking into the family’s relationship to a pair of financial advisors. And when Muhammad selected the struggling Bruins over more ascendant schools, many assumed it was because of UCLA head coach Ben Howland’s ties to shoemaker Adidas, which sponsors Muhammad’s sister Asia, a pro tennis player.
 

Faye Muhammad, who accompanied her son on the trip to Santa Rosa, is glad to be moving forward.
 

“It’s a huge relief,” she said. “It was just so much pressure the last few days, because the coaches came in again. He would wake up and have his decision, but then he would say, ‘I’m gonna sleep on it again.’”
 

Muhammad more or less played every position on the court in high school. He frequently handled the ball for Bishop Gorman, but also spent a lot of his time in the paint.
 

UCLA coach Ben Howland wants Muhammad to play shooting guard, which is where Russotti enters the picture.
 

Russotti first gained notice while coaching at Casa Grande, where he developed local stars like Angelo Tsagarakis and Josh Akognon. A true basketball gadfly, Russotti has diversified into running basketball camps, producing instructional videos and even inventing — he has marketed his J-Glove shooting aid to several NBA teams and NCAA programs.
 

He also trains players one on one. When UCLA suggested that Muhammad get some spring seasoning, his AAU coach, Clay Williams (who also happens to be Muhammad’s godfather), suggested Russotti.
“We watched Jeremy work a few people out, and he presented us with what Shabazz needed, and what he could offer,” Faye Muhammad said. “And after seeing some of the stuff he worked on with others, we thought it would be a great fit. And it’s not too far, so we can get there.”
 

So Muhammad came to Sonoma County for three days, panting through four grueling workouts, each of them between 60 and 90 minutes long.
 

Muhammad was a blur of dunks and blocked shots in high school. But he did most of it on sheer athleticism. Howland knows that to exceed in Division I, or the NBA, the young man will have to learn more subtle skills like drawing fouls, separting himself from a hand-checking defender and moving without the ball.
 

“We’re not worried about his shooting right now,” Russotti said. “He has everything he needs to be a shooter. It all comes down to making him the hardest guy to guard. What we want to do is take his strengths — his conditioning, his intensity, his desire — and make him just a menace on the court, guys chasing him around like a Ray Allen or a Rip Hamilton. Because he never stops.”
 

Sunday’s workout was eclectic. Muhammad shot jumper after jumper, both off the dribble and catch-and-release. He worked on his post-entry passing, and on making his crossover dribble more compact. He snatched sticks out of the air while wearing weighted wristbands. He drove the lane while Russotti tugged on that elastic band.
 

Muhammad flew back to Las Vegas on Sunday night, but Russotti will work with him again. He plans to bring in Akognon, a long-time protege who still harbors dreams of making an NBA roster, to hone Muhammad’s shooting touch, and will focus on defense later in the summer.
 

When you’re trying to become the best basketball player on the planet, the work never ends.
 

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.