SAN FRANCISCO — Khalil Shabazz never liked to think of himself in the shadows.
The 5-foot-11, 160-pound guard had always been surrounded by such prolific talent at powerhouse Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, crossing paths with Dejounte Murray (University of Washington, San Antonio Spurs), Kevin Porter (University of Southern California, Cleveland Cavaliers), Shaqquan Aaron (USC), Sam Cunliffe (Arizona State University, University of Kansas, University of Evansville) and Keith Smith (University of Oregon, Pepperdine University).
While those players were receiving recognition from the top programs around the country, Shabazz wasn’t. The talent was there, no doubt. He was a prolific scorer who went to four straight championship games with Rainier Beach (capturing two) and owns the second-highest scoring mark in school history with 47 points in a single game.
But the only thing in his way?
“I didn’t worry about the big schools or anything like that but I did feel like I was at least some type of D1 talent,” Shabazz said Tuesday afternoon. “I kind of had to do some self-reflection. I kind of found myself looking at other people’s situations who I thought I was better than, saying ‘Oh, they don’t deserve that scholarship or they don’t deserve it, they don’t deserve that.’ That was the wrong mindset.
“… Once I stopped thinking in that negative mindset, a lot of doors opened.”
A few offers were presented during his senior season but fell through. He had committed to the University of Hawaii-Hilo, but after a coaching change, he decommitted only a few days later.
“It was a very rough patch for me,” Shabazz said. “A very tough recruiting process.”
After considering junior colleges and walking on at UW and Oregon, Shabazz received a call from Central Washington University assistant coach Drew Harris. A couple of weeks later, he signed with the Wildcats for the 2017-18 season.
And what a pickup it was for CWU.
Shabazz, who started 24 of 26 games for the Wildcats, averaged 15.3 points on 44.7% shooting. He also led CWU in steals (60), which was second in the conference, and shot 41.8% from the 3. He garnered Great Northwest Athletic Conference freshman of the year honors and a GNAC honorable mention.
Shabazz originally came in thinking he would redshirt, but after a few productive scrimmages, that changed. And after scoring 28 points (a career-high) off the bench in his first collegiate game against CSU San Bernardino, he started the next 15 games.
A promising future with CWU for the freshman, but unfortunately, how abruptly it ended.
After a first-round exit in the GNAC tournament, CWU head coach Greg Sparling’s contract was not renewed after spending 24 years at the helm. It shook up the entire program and left many questioning the decision — including Shabazz.
“Me personally, guys on my team had different opinions, but me personally, the whole process with them bringing in a new coach, I felt like it was kind of shady. It wasn’t really for the players, it wasn’t really for the program. I thought it was more so on people’s agendas,” he said.
“… Us as the players, we went to the athletic department and told them what coach we felt would fit the position best — and we thought it was (Brandon) Rinta. And I felt like they kind of ignored that and wanted to do whatever they wanted to do. They brought it more guys, and I don’t know, it just felt like they weren’t really trying to do what’s best for the players. So that on top of them firing my coaching staff and then whole situation kind of feeling shady, I just felt like it was better if I got out of there.”
ONE WAS ENOUGH
And his lone season in the GNAC was convincing enough to lure in the attention of Division I coaches. After four months in the transfer portal, Shabazz signed with the University of San Francisco.
Two years later, he’s been an instrumental part of the Dons’ success in the West Coast Conference.
In the opening game of the unusual and fanless 2020-21 season, Shabazz poured in 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting in a loss to the University of Massachusetts Lowell. After scoring only five in the win over Townson University, Shabazz notched 14 points in a low-scoring upset win versus No. 4 Virginia on the road, 61-60.
In six games (all starts), he’s averaging 16.3 points, 1.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game.
Mostly coming off the bench in the 2019-20 campaign, playing in 34 games (starting in two), Shabazz averaged 10.5 points, three rebounds and 1.4 assists per game along with a WCC leading 56 steals.
“My job coming off the bench was being a spark, offensively and defensively,” he said.
But redshirting in 2018-19, he says, was “the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.” It greatly helped his transition from Division II to Division I.
“I was able to get the game from a different perspective,” Shabazz said of redshirting. “I’ve been playing basketball, 16, 17 years before I sat out and this is the first time I actually sat out and just watched the game all year. It really gave me a chance to really understand the game from a different perspective and be able to get myself physically stronger, mentally stronger — things like that.”
Shabazz heard it all year long at CWU: He had the talent to compete at a higher level. But at the time, his vision was to solely help the Wildcats win.
But after Sparling’s release, it only elicited the idea to explore other options.
Would he still be in Ellensburg if Sparling and the staff had not been let go?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I think it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to leave if they were still the coaching staff. I always wanted to showcase my talent at the highest level, and I felt like I had the ability to do that. With them giving me the opportunity that they did give me, it put me in a position to be able to do that so I wanted to chase my dreams and do the underheard of.”
Shabazz still keeps tabs on the GNAC, as his older brother, Shadeed, is a senior guard for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where Sparling enters his third season as head coach. Shadeed was the GNAC player of the year, newcomer of the year, and co-defensive player of the year in 2019-20.
Could have Shadeed possibly joined his younger brother at CWU, if certain circumstances had not occurred?
“We talked about it,” Khalil said, who shared a Rainier Beach state championship with Shadeed in 2015. “He had already been bouncing around from school to school, JUCO to JUCO. I think at the time when I was a freshman he was at a junior college, so it would have been the perfect chance for him to come to the university.”
As the Dons suit up for a matchup tonight versus Long Beach State, Khalil doesn’t forget about his one-year stint in Ellensburg and where it led him today.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “You don’t really hear about guys come out of D2, let alone a 5-foot-11, 160-pound kid, you know, you don’t really see guys doing that. I think about it all the time. I’m just blessed where hard work can get you.”
Luke Olson: email@example.com; on Twitter: @lukeolsonb