This last season, the San Francisco Dons punched a ticket to their first NCAA tournament in 24 years. While their heartbreaking overtime loss against 7th seed Murray State sent them home early, the exit doesn’t justify the impressive 24-10 season the Dons put together. Seven of their 10 losses were within 5 points, and because of their gritty defense many had the San Francisco 10-seed on upset watch against the Racers. Their presence at the tournament was no joke–earning their at-large bid after wins against Davidson, UAB, and Arizona State in non-conference play. So what we learned last year is that the Dons, a quiet mid major, are for real.
Following the tournament, two big headlines emerged—head coach Todd Golden’s transition to Florida and Jamaree Bouyea, the Dons leading scorer (17.3 ppg) leaving the program after his final year of eligibility. It’s easy to see those two stories and assume San Francisco will head into another tournament drought, the fate of many mid-majors who graduate stars or lose coaches, but I’d be careful in assuming the Dons are going anywhere.
Why? Because right behind Bouyea was an underrated and underappreciated guard, and it’s a name you’ll want to stamp as a breakout candidate for 2022-23—it’s the D-2 turned D-1, now soon to be San Francisco star, Khalil Shabazz.
In three seasons with the Dons, Shabazz hid quietly behind San Francisco’s gray fog and posted 10+ PPG, 13.7 this last season as second highest scorer, dropping over 1000+ points in his three years. And while he’s certainly an offensive threat, numbers don’t factor in the defensive energy he brings—he’s averaged more steals per game than turnovers each year, and he’s relentless around the perimeter defensively. His decision to stay for his final year of eligibility vaults the Dons back into the NCAA tournament conversation, and it’s expected that he will lead the team back to the dance.
Shabazz’s story is a unique one. He steps in this season as the primary scorer and backcourt defender for a Division-1 tournament 10-seed, but he began his career on the bench in the GNAC with the Central Washington Wildcats, a D-2 school.
“I’m just blessed where hard work can get you.”-Khalil Shabazz
Prior to college, Shabazz had a stellar high school career at well-known Rainier Beach, one of Washington State’s, and the country’s, top basketball schools—producing multiple NBA products like Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, and Dejounte Murray. Winning two state titles, Shabazz averaged 15 points, 6 boards, 4 assists, and 3 steals—he also has the second-highest scoring game in Rainier Beach history with 47. But despite his success, he was merely a 2-star recruit, and few D-1 offers came his way.
Even though bigger schools didn’t recognize his talent, Shabazz was determined to prove that he deserved a chance at the Division-1 level. Despite the option to walk on at schools like UW or Oregon, he joined the Wildcats and started his college career as a reserve… for only a single game. After trailing CSU San Bernardino early in the second game of the season, head coach Greg Sparling sent in the backups, and Shabazz took over with 28 points, 6 boards and 3 assists. After that, he started every game. He racked up awards and records that season, averaging 15.1 ppg, leading the conference with 60 steals, shooting 44% from FG range and 41.8% from three on his way to earning GNAC honorable mention and Freshman of the Year honors. It was all a product of hard work and the drive Shabazz developed despite going unnoticed by bigger schools.
After his time with CWU, he put the D-1 world on notice and was eventually recruited by San Francisco in 2019. When many people would give up, Shabazz had the foresight to keep working—and he chose to redshirt his first year to learn and study the game—a decision he attributes to a massive improvement in his basketball IQ. And finally, after years of time and effort to prove his value, he was given the opportunity to play, and he began his D-1 career in 2020 with 31 points against University of Massachusetts Lowell. All of a sudden, the kid who was overlooked became a major figurehead for his new D-1 program, and he solidified his game, proving it was no fluke when he posted 14 in a 61-60 win against #4 ranked Virgina on the road just two games later. The rest is history.
This last season Shabazz finished his final five games prior to the NCAA tournament with 97 points including 22 against the #1 team in the country, Gonzaga. He led the WCC in steals and earned second team and WCC all-tournament team honors. And if it wasn’t clear that he worked hard already—he was also added to the DI-AAA ADA Scholar-Athlete Team. So, despite a difficult loss in round one of the dance, Shabazz has shown the basketball world he’s just like his team—gritty, tough, underrated, and legit.
In 2020, Shabazz was interviewed about his rise to Division 1, he commented, “I think about it all the time… You don’t really hear about guys come out of D2, let alone a 5-foot-11, 160-pound kid… I’m just blessed where hard work can get you.” He may be blessed, but only because he earned it.
While many athletes show endless dedication, Shabazz embodies it–he’s the hustle player that lives for defense, he’s the scrappy guard that outworked you and picked your pocket, it’s in his brand “iBall” and in his music–when he raps as Lil Bazzy: “me and sleep don’t get along because I’m chasing millions.” It wouldn’t surprise me to find Shabazz running on next to no sleep in a gym somewhere in his home town of Seattle, in the weight room on the San Francisco campus, or studying on the bus or a plane on his way to the Don’s next game. And now, his hard work has officially paid off–it’s his turn to be the star, no more bench time, and he’ll be front and center on a team that’s in the mix to battle for the WCC and another tournament appearance. Perhaps there’s no better way to describe Shabazz’s rise to fame than in his own song, The Hope, when he raps “I took my patience and my pride and turned it into gold.” Green and gold—Go Dons!