“So Jamal Abu-Shamala is white?”
“Yup, and from Shakopee!”
Jamal Abu-Shamala, the native Minnesotan who recently ended his Gopher career as the most productive member of the class of 2009, was never quite what was expected. For those who jumped on the Gopher basketball bandwagon since Dan Monson was sent packing, Abu-Shamala did not fit the mental image of a name that, in the basketball world at least, is most similar to one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Instead, the Jordanian-Palestinian from the southwest metro exurbs was every bit the classic local boy made good who was never quite good enough to excel at the Big Ten level. On a lower level or on a less talented team, though, he might have been Kevin Coble.
Despite being a state champion, all-state selection, and finalist for Mr. Basketball, Abu-Shamala received few Division I offers, and decided to walk on with the Gophers. Like just about everyone who attends college he learned that, being simply good at the high school level does not always translate to being average at the college level. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the Gophers, the team’s talent level at the beginning of his career allowed him to play over fifteen minutes per game and average more than five points per game. He was one dimensional, much more so than his senior year, with more than half of his point attempts coming from behind the three point line. He couldn’t drive, pass, play much defense, and was never known for his hustle, but could he knock down that outside shot. His .475 three point shooting seems like ancient history for a team that at time struggled to reach the double digits from three.
The 2006-2007 was one of the worst season’s in memory for the Gophers, but it was the best for Abu-Shamala, who saw his minutes and scoring increase during his sophomore season. He was the teams fourth leading scorer and played the fourth most minutes. There was no discernible increase in his skill. Instead he benefited from the fact that in the game of basketball, a team always gets the ball back after the other team, and that no matter how bad a team is, they’ll end up scoring some points.
Then Tubby came to town and the minutes started dwindling, though not for lack of starts. Either because of endless optimism, unadulterated stubbornness, or some combination of the two, and despite his scoring and playing time being nearly halved, Abu-Shamala kept starting. Sometimes it worked, and he would spark the team to a fast start. Other times he didn’t even make it past the first time out. Coach Smith’s enigmatic and illogical player rotations had to have been frustrating. Are there any other teams who have a starter play the fewest minutes in a game (sans foul, injury or attitude problems) on the team?
The all or nothing playing time was even more illogical because Abu-Shamala’s performances were logically all or nothing. Against stronger, faster, taller teams, he was clearly outmatched. Against teams that resembled the Missota Conference where he became a star in High School, he was unstoppable. Against the always slow foot and zone defense loving Northwestern Wildcats he scored 15 as a freshman, 19 as a sophomore, and 16 as a junior. Unfortunately he fell victim to a lack of playing time and averaged only 4.5 minutes per game against his favorite team to play. On Senior Day in the heart breaking loss to Michigan he scored a conference season high ten points, once again against a less athletic and undersized team. In 2007 against the Wolverines he nearly tripled that scoring output with a career high 27.
He may have started his career as a skinny shooter, but he ended his career as a well-rounded fan favorite. Playing with the Jordanian national team the summer before his senior year enabled Abu-Shamala to round out of repertoire. His always high basketball IQ led to easy baskets, particularly inside where he seemed like the only Gopher who could consistently make a lay-up. More defensive awareness led to more blocked shots. He had countless break-aways that would have led to rim rattling dunks if only he could get off the ground. You may have missed all this though, because by the time he finally put all the pieces together it was a new era entirely. Walk-ons won’t be earning scholarships by design any more, and they certainly won’t be starting.
The better he got, the less playing time they received. It is hard to call him a victim of the talent upgrade, and he was most likely thrilled to learn that highly recruited freshman would soon be his teammates. It is a shame though that he didn’t have more of an opportunity demonstrate all that he learned. When playing more athletic teams, his court awareness was not enough to get open, and he wasn’t about to go over, around, or through any opponents. He may have found openings with a better point guard for a teammate or interior players to kick the ball out, but it just wasn’t to be.
Jamal Abu-Shamala made the best out of a less than stellar situation, and used what he had to have a successful career. That kid from the suburbs with the funny name will be remembered for a long time. He didn’t always get the recognition on the court, but he did where it matters more. This spring he was named the men’s Outstanding Student Athlete, and it wasn’t because he could knock down an open jumper or his name.