NCAA reinstates UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad effective immediately

At 4:07 p.m. PST, Shabazz Muhammad clicked send on the tweet UCLA fans have been waiting to read since the news broke months ago that he was being investigated by the NCAA.

"#Free," he wrote.

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Indeed Muhammad is free. Free to play right away. Free to fulfill his goal of rejuvenating the UCLA program. And free to prove he's worthy of the hype he received as the No. 1 recruit in his class and a potential top five pick in next June's NBA Draft.

The NCAA announced Friday evening it has reinstated Muhammad effective immediately after hearing an appeal from UCLA earlier in the day. Muhammad, who had been suspended indefinitely since Nov. 9 for accepting extra benefits, is expected to travel to Brooklyn with UCLA for the Legends Classic and make his college debut Monday against Georgetown.

"I am relieved that this long, arduous process has come to an end," UCLA coach Ben Howland said in a statement Friday night. "So many people worked very hard on this case and I am eternally grateful to them."

To say this is the best-case scenario UCLA possibly could have expected is a massive understatement.

There had been talk in basketball circles in recent weeks that Muhammad could be suspended long enough that it would make more sense for him to train for the draft or play in Europe for a season rather than wait to be eligible at UCLA. Instead Muhammad missed three UCLA victories against Indiana State, UC Irvine and James Madison and will be able to play in the Bruins' first big games against Georgetown and perhaps top-ranked Indiana next week.

In a statement released by the NCAA, it said UCLA acknowledged amateurism violations took place and asked for Muhammad to be reinstated. The NCAA agreed, insisting only that Muhammad sit the three games he had already missed and pay back $1,600 in impermissible benefits, the cost of the three unofficial trips a family friend and financial adviser paid for during his recruiting process.

Why would the NCAA opt for such a lenient penalty? Perhaps it was because it could not find evidence of any other violations. Or maybe the organization was influenced by the embarrassment of a story in Thursday's Los Angeles Times in which an attorney said she overheard the boyfriend of an NCAA investigator say months ago that Muhammad would never play college basketball.

Regardless of the reason, Muhammad's presence instantly elevates UCLA from an improved team to a potentially elite one.

Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 swingman from Las Vegas, was the centerpiece of a highly touted recruiting class expected to reverse UCLA's fortunes after four seasons in which the Bruins missed the NCAA tournament twice and never advanced past the opening weekend. Add Muhammad to a perimeter unit that already includes suddenly steady point guard Larry Drew II, emerging star Jordan Adams and solid wings Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb, and suddenly UCLA has the perimeter firepower to pair with its deep frontcourt.

That's not to say the Bruins don't still have some holes. They're not particularly quick or athletic defensively, they haven't figured out how to maximize Kyle Anderson's deft passing ability yet and they're still not getting consistent production out of center Joshua Smith.

But sometimes a player with Muhammad's scoring ability and competitive streak can mask holes like that. One thing is for sure: UCLA is eager to see him have the chance to try.

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