Shabazz Muhammad goes for the grind

The Minnesota Timberwolves had just disgraced themselves with a first-quarter performance in which they had been out-hustled up and down the court by the winless Philadelphia 76ers en route to a ten-point deficit at 23-13. In the huddle during the break between quarters, coach Flip Saunders lambasted his troops, correctly noting that the Sixers were “playing harder” and challenging his team to “play with some heart.”

Twenty-three ticks of the clock into the second period, Shabazz Muhammad delivered.

Out on the perimeter playing defense when a Sixer shot went up, Muhammad began running toward his own hoop until, just before center court, he noticed Philadelphia had grabbed the offensive rebound. Bolting back toward the other basket, he collided with two other players in the scrum for the rebound on another missed Sixer shot. As he and teammate Thad Young nearly fell out of bounds along the baseline, the ball squirted toward the sideline.

At least three other players, including a Sixer three feet directly in front of him, had a better angle and ostensible chance of retrieving the loose ball. But Bazzy’s acceleration had him arriving at the orb simultaneously with his suddenly scrambling opponent, who ran into the scorer’s table as the pair tapped the ball back on to the court.

Both steadying himself and shifting direction with his hand against the table, Bazzy cut inside his sprawling contestant and barreled down the court. Zach LaVine had fed the ball to Corey Brewer near the top of the key. All of the other Sixers had run back to defend, but one had tripped, Bazzy passed another, and the remaining two were concentrating on Brewer, unaware that someone running at breakneck speed behind them was rapidly becoming a factor. Brewer dished the ball to Bazzy, who slowed his stride slightly and easily laid it in as the Sixer closest to him futilely tried to block the shot.

It was an example of how hustle translates into a skill in the NBA. The notion of Muhammad going from half court to contest the rebound enough to create a loose ball is not in the playbook or anyone’s instructional guide. That Muhammad could make up three feet of distance in fifteen feet of floor space despite nearly falling out of bounds the other way isn’t something that a player can reasonably be expected to attempt, let alone accomplish. And having made two hustling spurts to keep the play alive for the Wolves, nobody could have demanded the third spurt that ambushed the opposing defense and resulted in a fairly pedestrian layup.

The rocky prelude

Disappointment, not hustle, was the dominant theme when the Timberwolves acquired Muhammad the night of the NBA draft in June of 2013. Saunders, who had recently been hired as the Wolves President of Basketball Operations and was making his first personnel imprint on the team, explained to the media that the draft had unfolded into a worst-case scenario for Minnesota, compelling them to invoke the last of their four options. With all the players they coveted already taken by their slot with the ninth pick in the draft, they had traded it to obtain the 14th and 21st picks.

Even in that context, Saunders did not seem wildly enthusiastic about taking Muhammad with the 14th pick. He called him a “gym rat” who would play like he had “something to prove,” but even the veneer of elation that is de rigueur for the occasion was absent from his announcement.

That’s because Muhammad’s stock had been falling like a junk bond during a market correction on Wall Street. Less than a year before the draft, he had been feted as one of the top two high school players and the consensus number-one overall pick for the pros once he had completed his required season in college.

But Bazzy showed up at UCLA slightly overweight. Then it was discovered that he and his father had lied about his age — he was exactly a year older than people had been led to believe — tainting the dominance of his performance against teens who theoretically had been his peers. There were rumors that he was selfish and there were revelations that his defense and passing ability were substandard. He did not perform well in the most important college games. By draft night, the speculation was that he would fall completely out of the section of the draft made up of the fourteen lottery slots reserved for the NBA’s most inept and thus needy teams.

Two months after the draft, Muhammad was kicked out of the NBA’s four-day rookie program for having a female in his room after-hours on the first night. Stuck as a raw, discredited rookie on a Wolves roster led by a veteran coach (Rick Adelman) trying to win a ring before retirement and a superstar (Kevin Love) who would almost certainly force his way off the team if it didn’t make the playoffs, Muhammad had to wait more than four months and 50 games before he logged so many as ten minutes in a single contest.

Hard work as a constant

Behind the scenes, however, Muhammad kept grinding away at transforming himself into a useful NBA performer. Whether it was late after practice and early before games, he was customarily out on the court before most or all of his teammates, honing his shot or taking instruction from one of the assistant coaches. In January, two months into the season, he agreed to a week-long assignment to play for the Iowa Energy in the NBA’s D-League, a humbling demotion that many rookies taken in the lottery would have balked at accepting.

Yet during the those final two months of the 2013-14 season, Bazzy’s style and diligence were a revelation. Called a shooting guard or small forward because of his 6-6 height, he played like a power forward, flourishing under combat in the painted area near the hoop on offense. He converted 50 percent of his shots from both two-point and three-point range but was most impressive showcasing back-to-basket moves on the low left post, where his turnaround short jumper proved difficult to stop. He was also a beast as a rebounder at the offensive end.

Nevertheless, coming into this season, it was easy to once again discount Muhammad’s contribution to the Wolves. A massive off-season makeover had seen Love leave in favor of a phalanx of athletic wing players, most prominently small forward Andrew Wiggins, the superstar in waiting, but also power forwards Thad Young and Anthony Bennett and combo guard Zach LaVine, the team’s top draft choice. Add in holdover swingmen Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, and swingman Chase Budinger supposedly finally recovered from a pair of knee surgeries, and it was very difficult to see where Bazzy was going to get meaningful minutes.

Shabazz Muhammad
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Shabazz Muhammad’s hustle and work ethic warrant taking the risk on his learning curve, and establishing him as either a starter on the wing beside Andrew Wiggins.

But while the Wolves were revamping their roster in the offseason, Muhammad kept grinding. At Saunders’ initiative, he endured six weeks of grueling workouts with trainer Frank Matrisciano, likened to the regimen used for Navy SEALs, dropping fifteen pounds and re-sculpting his body into muscle and sinew.

I was skeptical of this makeover. Although he possesses an outsized 6-11 wingspan, Bazzy often compensated for his lack of height in paint by banging his weight around to create space. Last season it seemed like bulk and technique, not quickness, were the keys to his signature virtues of low-post scoring and offensive rebounding. When I asked him about it during Media Day, he firmly rebutted the notion that he would miss the extra pounds. “I am stronger now than I was last season,” he said, and there was certainty in his declaration.

It didn’t take long for Bazzy to demonstrate that he would be a factor this season. On opening night, he scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes against the rugged front line of Memphis. Ten days later, he had 13 points in 11 minutes against Miami, then 18 points in 14 minutes versus Dallas. On November 19, the Wolves tenth game of the 2014-15 season, injuries to center Nikola Pekovic along with the absence of power Thad Young enabled Muhammad to gain his first-ever NBA start, and he responded with 17 points and 8 rebounds in 32 minutes in a win over the New York Knicks.

In many respects, then, it appears that Bazzy has arrived. But those 32 minutes more than two weeks ago remain a career high in playing time. The fact is that his future prospects and contributions for this ball club remain uncertain.

Pros and cons

Saunders frequently proclaims himself to be “a big fan” of Muhammad. As the front office executive who drafted him in the face of ample skepticism, and as the supposedly interim coach of the team who really wants to stay in both positions indefinitely, he has every reason to maximize Bazzy’s value to the franchise.

Asked point-blank what Muhammad has to do to earn more playing time, Saunders cites his lack of cognition of both the offensive sets and defensive stratagems deployed from game to game. It is also true that Bazzy operates as something akin to a 6-6 power forward, which makes for volatile matchup possibilities. There are some situations where he will be too quick and active for an opposing power forward. But others will simply overpower him. Having him perform as a small forward, still the most frequently used option, presents its own difficulties, given Muhammad’s chronic problems with defensive discipline. He also lacks court vision, a skill that generally can’t be taught into the level of a virtue — his assist rate has been abysmal in both college and the pros. And even with all the injuries, the Wolves are relatively crowded at the wing positions.

These are legitimate drawbacks to Muhammad becoming an automatic part of the Wolves rotation, regardless of situation and opposing personnel. But I believe his hustle and work ethic warrant taking the risk on his learning curve, and establishing him as either a starter on the wing beside Wiggins, or giving him reliable minutes off the bench as a sixth or seventh man.

With Kevin Martin sidelined with a broken hand, Corey Brewer has stepped in as the shooting guard beside Wiggins at small forward. Brewer’s leadership during the disastrous road trip in November — he was notable for his effort as most of the team rolled over in blowout losses in New Orleans and Dallas — deserves respect. Brewer also handled the reality that the rookie Wiggins would start over him this season. Putting him back in a reserve role would be difficult for him to swallow and thus politically difficult for Saunders to execute.

But Muhammad provides the same non-stop motor as Brewer, only with a bigger chassis and a brake and clutch to better expend his energy. On a per-minute basis, Bazzy currently ranks first in free throw attempts, second in points (to Martin) and third in offensive rebounds behind center Pekovic and Dieng. He is second on the team in two-point shooting accuracy (behind Robbie Hummel, who rarely shoots two-pointers), leads the team in dunks with 16 (four ahead of Brewer and Bennett) and is third behind Pekovic and Dieng is the average proximity to the hoops of his field goal attempts.

Pairing Muhammad with Wiggins on the wings would present a challenge to opposing defenses. Both players are exceptionally quick and strong and can finish at the rim. They need a playmaker and a long-range shooter to help space the floor, which is why Mo Williams is the ideal complement at the point guard slot. (Bazzy has a net positive rating with just three players, Williams, the outside shooter Martin, and his kindred partner in chaos, Brewer.)

The downside of this Muhammad-Wiggins pairing is that Bazzy is a ball hog and Wiggins is a reluctant shooter if the offense isn’t directed his way. But I believe the two of them will create enough positive chaos on the court, as Bassy and Brewer have done, to generate ample “scramble points” for both.

According to Basketball-Reference, the Wolves are a minus 7.0 points per 100 possessions when the two share the court, but that is a sample size of just 71 minutes and includes some ugly losses when the point spreads were out of hand for everyone. It is hard to accept that Muhammad has been paired more frequently with Hummel (85 minutes, minus 8.1 points per 100 possessions), LaVine (95 minutes, minus 27.2 points per 100 possessions), and Budinger (100 minutes, minus 8.7 points per 100 possessions), with worse results than Bazzy and Wiggins together.

The Wolves went on to lose that game to the previously winless Sixers, a defeat so embarrassing that Saunders vowed to find players and lineups that could reverse the desultory tide and lack of immediacy that plagues his ball club. Unfortunately, Muhammad is listed as the latest of the wounded Wolves, and may not be able to play tonight against Houston due to a sprained ankle. But when he is able, you know he’ll be grinding. In an increasingly lost season, it would be some solace if the team put that energy to better use.

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Comments (10)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/05/2014 - 12:53 pm.

    Our best bench player?

    Once again, Wolves hopes for the season have been dashed due to the injury bug, and player roles have shifted dramatically from what they could be. I was supposed to be enjoying Gorgui’s change-of-pace at the center position, rather than watching him get overpowered for 30+ minutes per night (though he has played well given the circumstances). Likewise, Mo Williams was to provide a steady veteran hand off the bench, but is now pressed into extended duty due not only to Ricky’s injury, but LaVine’s complete lack of competence running an offense.

    When you add Kevin Martin’s injury to the mix, things look even worse. Not only was Martin knocking down threes at a 48 percent clip, but he was also getting to the line at his highest rate in 4 years. We’re so depleted right now that when a sub comes in, I’m beyond nervous: the dropoff from our current starters to the bench is a fairly wide chasm, especially with guys like Bennett and LaVine as regulars (and slightly less so with Budinger and Hummel).

    But when Bazzy comes in, I’m actually excited rather than worried. I know he’ll play hard, go after offensive boards, and generally cause havoc. It’s not always immediately impactful, but he doesn’t feel like he’s got a short leash. Yes, there are mental lapses and other flaws to his game, but his presence on the floor gives us a better shot at winning than whatever the alternative is. Not only that, but he’s fun to watch on a team that’s currently turning in lackluster performances.

  2. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 12/05/2014 - 01:18 pm.

    Establishing Accountability

    Shabazz learning to play within himself has been one of a small number of bright spots this month. Many were down on him coming in and it is always great when a player can earn the admiration and sway opinion in a good way.

    Flip seems a lot harder on Shabazz (and Bennett) than others in terms of reducing minutes as a punishment of sorts. Accountability is important for a young team, and if a player is consistently making the same mistakes on either end, the coaching staff should do its best to send a message. Flip’s “right way to play” is not something many seem to agree with these days, but the enforcement of general defensive/offensive principles should be micromanaged to a reasonable degree if the problems are chronic. That being said, many of Bazz’s dunks come in the half court off of very nice cuts and he is almost always able to get position in the place he is most effective for a bucket, so it does seem a bit odd given he is definitely making up for his mistakes in meaningful ways.

    To that extent, the accountability deal is certainly a tough challenge for Flip considering the uninspired and poor play of the veterans has been more alarming than Bazz’s subtle-to-the-average-fan nuances. Brewer for example, as hard as he plays, has been a significant minus as a starter due to his gambles coupled with horrid outside shot selection on the other end. I would apply the shot selection bit to Thaddeus and Mo Williams as well. The point I am trying to make is that this has to be confusing to the young players, when the vets play outside of the system, and not helping matters.

    Is there a reasonable solution to this? One of my concerns going into the season was having too many veteran players on a young team may cause some number hunting and create a bit of a chasm once the season predictably fell into disarray. This seems to be showing some subtle signs of happening.

    Prediction: over the next few games, likely after Mo and Bazz return, you will see a much shorter rotation.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/06/2014 - 10:23 am.

    It’s worked so far

    That’s the main reason I’m okay with the number of minutes he’s been getting. With the concerns everyone had, they probably assumed they had less margin for error with his development.

    I’m sure the coaches keep track of how often each guy is in the wrong spot on either end; it’s just hard to differentiate because the offense has been so stagnant and the defense has been so passive that his positive traits jump out and his weaknesses seem emblematic of the whole team. There’s a lot of selective memory with Bazz and Brewer on opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, we think of Brewer missing layups and Shabazz dunking emphatically, but they shoot basically the same % from 0-3 feet (66.1 to 64.6).

    This may be selective memory, but I think the difference between the vets freelancing and the young guys on offense is that the vets are generally doing it near the end of the shot clock, which makes me think that a play broke down and they had to figure something out. That’s where knowing the play and what was supposed to happen is the difference between seeing bad shot selection by a vet and seeing a forced shot due to the young guys not sticking to the play. Based on what I’ve seen of Williams in his other stops, he delivers passes on time when the offense is running how it’s supposed to, so their stagnation may be rooted in other areas.

  4. Submitted by Tom Om on 12/06/2014 - 05:33 pm.

    More playing time to LaVine or Shabazz.

    Shabaz is a good player for special situations/assignments. In some situations he can play the 2 or the 3, and in some the 4, but he can’t play these positions on a regular basis. He can be a good scorer on a bad team, but not on a good balanced one.

    I tend to agree that LaVine should be developed as guard and not as a PG. I think that playing next to Rubio (I hope Saunders won’t rush him back too soon) would help the development of LaVine into a much better player, and maybe even to a superstar, something that I can’t see happening with Shabazz. So I don’t exactly agree with the second part of the following statement: “I can see minutes as a two-guard for him(LaVine), providing it isn’t robbed from Muhammad”.

  5. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/05/2014 - 12:53 pm.

    Our best bench player?

    Once again, Wolves hopes for the season have been dashed due to the injury bug, and player roles have shifted dramatically from what they could be. I was supposed to be enjoying Gorgui’s change-of-pace at the center position, rather than watching him get overpowered for 30+ minutes per night (though he has played well given the circumstances). Likewise, Mo Williams was to provide a steady veteran hand off the bench, but is now pressed into extended duty due not only to Ricky’s injury, but LaVine’s complete lack of competence running an offense.

    When you add Kevin Martin’s injury to the mix, things look even worse. Not only was Martin knocking down threes at a 48 percent clip, but he was also getting to the line at his highest rate in 4 years. We’re so depleted right now that when a sub comes in, I’m beyond nervous: the dropoff from our current starters to the bench is a fairly wide chasm, especially with guys like Bennett and LaVine as regulars (and slightly less so with Budinger and Hummel).

    But when Bazzy comes in, I’m actually excited rather than worried. I know he’ll play hard, go after offensive boards, and generally cause havoc. It’s not always immediately impactful, but he doesn’t feel like he’s got a short leash. Yes, there are mental lapses and other flaws to his game, but his presence on the floor gives us a better shot at winning than whatever the alternative is. Not only that, but he’s fun to watch on a team that’s currently turning in lackluster performances.

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