Friday, May 18, 2012

Big time happenings in Santa Rosa

There is no off-season in any sport, especially basketball. That is, if you want to get better and not get left behind. Come this weekend, a prime yet remarkable example of just this will take place.

On Saturday, a prominent Sports Illustrated senior writer is going to descend on Santa Rosa, specifically Jeremy Russotti's training venue where the latter will be working out Shabazz Muhammad, the top prospect in the country and former Casa Grande High star now international baller Josh Akognon.

 That pairing in itself speak volumes but it's what attracted the attention of this country's top sports magazine.

Muhammad is headed to UCLA in September. Life is set for him. A year, maybe two with the Bruins and then it's off to fame and fortune in the NBA. But the young man and his father know -- that being the key that sets them apart from so many others -- that a transformation of his game is necessary in order to secure that bright future. The physical abilities, edgy toughness and maximum effort are already present. But just as important is that the hunger to get better, the willingness to learn and the desire to be challenged and not protected are also the keys to Muhammad's future success.

As Russotti put it, "People may think I am crazy to say this, but Shabazz is far from a finished product and has very little offensive technique to start with." He continued, "But playing hard and training hard, you cannot force that. And Shabazz has that once in a lifetime innate drive to be the best." 
For Akognon, he's enjoyed well-paying stints in China, averaging 29 points per game and 27 points per game in the last two seasons overseas.  He's doing well financially and understands that there are many ways to the NBA. Nobody outworks him and it's been that way for years under Russotti's tutelage.  Says Russotti, "Akognon is a rare player that has trained at the highest level for like eight years straight and has never thought twice about deviating away from his goals. He doesn't talk, he's very humble, and has a workman approach to his craft. It is almost deja vu training both Shabazz and Josh together. It's scary how similar these guys are in personality and intrinsic motivation."

Simply put, Akognon and Muhammad are basketball kin, joined at the heart and head in terms of doing what is necessary to keep advancing.

How this all began is Russotti received an invite to work out Muhammad's Bishop Gorman High team -- that's where the paths of Russotti and Muhammad initially crossed. Then it was Russotti doing the same with Dream Vision, Muhammad's spring and summer club basketball squad.

The elder Muhammad eventually said to Russotti, "I don't know what you're doing with my son but in just a few weekends he looks like a two-guard."

Russotti was impressed by what he saw: "Shabazz doesn't talk, he trains, he works, he wants results. If you have seen him play, Shabazz usually gets what he goes after."

Eventually, it became four weekends of workouts with Shabazz, so far.

At some point, Muhammad saw footage of Akognon's play and was intrigued by how a 6-foot guard was so effective.

Simply put, Russotti acknowledged, "nobody beats Josh one-on-one consistently, nobody. Josh can make the best players humble really quickly when mano a mano."

Now the pair are training together and, prompted by Jeremy Lin's uber emergence this season, SI wants to do a feature on how a star talent is making his way to The Big Show plus how a lesser recognized talent is carving out his own path to donning an NBA uniform.

As Russotti describes it, "Josh's story is very Disney-like, and Shabazz is the vehicle that is allowing people to see how phenomenal this journey has been for all of us."

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