Photo: Flickr/Mark J P
One of the more interesting comments I saw regarding Shabazz Muhammad’s demotion to the D-League was that this was not what was supposed to happen to first round picks. On the surface, this sounds correct. Being a first round pick comes with certain expectations that alludes those that go in the second round or even undrafted. To us, a first round pick means some sort of long term solution that steadily measures out a remedy for what ails a team until that weakness has been fully strengthened. As far as expectations go, being sent down to the D-League is not one of the expectations we hold for a first round pick, but especially a lottery pick.
The reality is that, while being selected at all is an honor, especially for those in the lottery, a player’s draft slot is not a direct correlation of their actual ability but one team’s valuation of that player’s ability. This is one of the reasons why building a team is so difficult: one of the most critical components, the draft, is a total crap shoot. You can have a player like Michael Beasley or Derrick Williams that light the NCAA on fire, but are reduced to journeyman role players even before their rookie contract is up. Then you have players like Isaiah Thomas who was the last pick of the second round in his class that has risen to be a certifiable starter in the league. You may think you know, but you don’t know, and there is no one set “right path” for an incoming player to take.
To flip the question around: is a D-League assignment any worse of a fate for a first round pick than playing just 42 minutes in 33 games? I say no. In fact, I would say that it is a worse fate.
Speaking with former D-Leaguers in the summer league helped me understand a lot about how the league benefits players that come through it. Not only are players able to stay in the same country as their friends and family, but they get the opportunity to play basketball in front of important basketball players. Several players such as Anthony Tolliver and Glen Rice Jr. have used the league to showcase their abilities and eventually get a foot in the door of the NBA when, in past years, they may have had to make the choice between playing overseas or remaining in the NBA as some team’s 13th man.
Yet, there is still a stigma that comes with a D-League demotion that is more prevalent than it is in Major League Baseball, perhaps because having those farm systems has been a part of its culture longer than you and I have been on this earth. However, as more teams get their own affiliate and learn to use it to get their developing players minutes and give their rotation players a way to ease back into the game after injury, maybe we’ll see that stigma fade. Maybe calling it a demotion doesn’t help, but doesn’t carry the same connotation when used in baseball or even hockey, so why should it be a negative one with the NBA? Like it has in other major sports league, the NBA just needs to get theirs fully integrated and time will take care of the rest.
Another reason may be the absence of that beloved underdog rising from the ashes, ascending to the stars from obscurity, to open up a few more hearts and minds to the benefits of the D-League. Player success stories are becoming more and more frequent but, admittedly, they aren’t the grand success stories that typically change minds overnight, Still, these stories– no matter how big or small — are becoming more and more frequent, which is a positive for everybody. Think about it. The better the Association gets at developing talent, the better the product becomes, and the more enjoyment we get out of it. And it certainly seems that we are on the right track.
As this relates to Muhammad, this is exactly what he needs and what the Timberwolves needed to do once it became obvious that he was not going to get Chase Budinger’s minutes in his absence. Despite being a first round pick, Muhammad was still a bit of a project in that the Timberwolves were going to have to re-wire his playing style to fit what the team needed. Until that point, Muhammad was the go-to guy on every team that he had been on and a player his teammates knew was top dog. Muhammad worked and worked at it, but we could see that it was not an easy transition to becoming more of a — for lack of a better phrase — team player.
The thing about Muhammad is that, despite the controversy with him last year, he has always said the right things in my limited interactions with him and at least tried to demonstrate those qualities the team desires on the court. His numbers so far this season are absolutely useless as far as evaluative purposes go since his minuscule 42 minute sample occurred largely in garbage time. Now, Muhammad will have the chance to play on a regular basis to develop some confidence and skills as well.
This isn’t just the Timberwolves casting Muhammad aside or showcasing him. No, Flip Saunders following him tells me that the team is still invested in his development and Flip’s presence would give the rookie some familiarity in unfamiliar circumstances. It would seem logical that the same way that Flip implemented a new system of communication between coaches and trainers for players that he would do something similar as the medium between Muhammad’s D-League coach and his Timberwolves coaches to ensure he is working on the right things. This type of synergy and communication will only increase Muhammad’s chances for success. Well, at least more than sitting on the bench and watching Alexey Shved.
No, this is not the trajectory we imagined Muhammad’s career taking when he was a highly-touted freshman at UCLA, but players don’t develop at our pace, but theirs. If Muhammad is never meant to be a star, that will be fine. However, if Muhammad is to have any success in the NBA at all, it’s likely that he’s headed to the place that gives him the best chance at a career. Will that be enough to lessen the D-League stigma that is still present, who knows, but this would be another step in the right direction for the both the league and Muhammad.