To be a successful team in the NBA you need a lot of things, but one of those things is young and affordable help that is usually procured through the draft. The Timberwolves, in this case, are feeling the effects after years of poor drafting as they fight their way to stay in the Western Conference playoff picture. Going back to 2008, the team has made 18 total picks with David Kahn and Flip Saunders at the helm. You know the names — Wes Johnson, Jonny Flynn, Derrick Williams…etc. — and they now live in infamy. Kahn in particular was a big wheeler and dealer on draft day, swinging and missing on some (Martell Webster was certainly better before and after Minnesota) or some that we’re still waiting for a return on (Chase Budinger). Really, it’s hurt the Timberwolves’ playoff cause to have this little success in the draft and only two of their 18 picks, Ricky Rubio and Robbie Hummel, are currently on their roster today.
Some people love their revisionist history, but hindsight always being 20/20, it’s not necessarily a productive conversation to have. Though it is a bit of a bummer acquiring then trading young talent like Nikola Mirotic, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons and Ty Lawson, the team has to move forward with the players they have now. Now this includes Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who were acquired on draft night from the Jazz for Trey Burke. As the season has progressed, both players have found their way into more minutes as they’ve grown more accustomed to the pro game and injuries to the players ahead of them have taken their toll.
The one major drawback to Nikola Pekovic is that he is rather earthbound and not much of a rim protector, which is fine. There are more ways to be a good defender than blocking a shot and certainly being physical and forcing difficult shots can yield the same results and be just as effective. However, having a good shot blocker is a good preventative measure. Ballhandlers pull up for a quicker shot when they notice they are just few feet away from a shot swatting savant patrolling the paint. Dieng was potentially this type of player, making him a nice complement to Pekovic on the defensive end, but he was raw and had issues staying on the court.
Dieng being 24 years old already doesn’t leave a ton of room for improvement, but still time for him to improve on what he already does well. He is shooting 41.8 percent on the season, and his efficiency only drops with more attempts, but offense was never going to be his bread and butter. His Per 36 numbers for things like rebounding and shot blocking are very encouraging at 12.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. The only problem here is that he averages 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes, too, so he needs to work on staying out of foul trouble, but he has the makings of a playmaker on defense. It’s not just a playmaker, either. On the court, the Timberwolves surrender -10.8 points per 100 possessions, but -16.6 when he is on the bench.
For Shabazz Muhammad, the team’s most polarizing pick in eons, things have been a little different. Coming to the Timberwolves meant having to change his entire approach to the game as a shoot-first player and had to develop a more team-friendly mentality. That meant doing things like rebounding, passing and working hard off of the ball as to not stagnate the offense. It takes time to relearn nearly 20 years of habit and Muhammad was not there when the season began. Muhammad waited, bided his time and ultimately wound up in the D-League with the Iowa Energy. Muhammad was finally able to get some playing time that wasn’t in garbage time but was still better than playing against the collegiate ranks.
And on Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns, Muhammad had himself a game. He shot an efficient 8-13 for 20 points and six points. Many wondered why he wasn’t playing earlier in the season and why Rick Adelman hates rookies (which isn’t true, at least in Muhammad’s case). The truth is the Timberwolves are a win-now team and Muhammad was a project, which meant playing time would likely be scarce. Early in the year, Muhammad really struggled defensively and used too many possessions; like when he had a 37.5 usage rate in January.
Fast forward to February, the young guard has played in eight games and averaging 11.2 minutes in those games. On top of that, Muhammad is averaging 6.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and just 0.3 assists per game on 45.7 percent shooting. That…that is the type of production the Timberwolves have been missing all along in this run, and Muhammad’s sustained success would go a long way for the Timberwolves once Kevin Martin returns and also give their bench another dimension.
Sure, these are rather small samples, but considering how bleak things looked for the Timberwolves’ draft class and bench early, this is just what they needed. Continued growth as we head towards the spring and conclusion of the regular season also puts the team in a better position for next year as it is also the crucial year in the Kevin Love era. Getting more from Dieng and Muhammad would allow the Timberwolves to stay where they are because they won’t have to try tricky maneuvers with a tight cap situation to get bench help because for once they will already have it. Yet, all of this will remain to be seen, but the midseason returns on these two prospects are certainly encouraging, especially after years of draft day futility.