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Shabazz Muhammad goes for the grind

After a rocky start, Muhammad has shaped himself into a powerful force on the court.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.