The Shabazz Muhammad Revival

Photo: Phillipe Put/Flickr

Photo: Phillipe Put/Flickr

The life of a first round pick in the NBA is always an interesting one. Shabazz Muhammad’s case is no different. The once-prep-star-turned-UCLA-star-turned-Timberwolves prospect has seen it all in the last two years. In high school, he was labeled the next big thing. Yet, when he arrived in Los Angeles, his time was shrouded in controversy and criticism over his production. Because of concerns of his attitude, age and performance, he slid to to the 14th pick– a far cry from preseason predictions having him number one overall.

Often times the evaluation process for prospects is unfair. The expectation many hold for incoming first round picks is that they are automatically good, which is hardly the case. There’s typically an adjustment period at some point for every rookie and each develops at their own pace. If they fall short of meeting initial expectations, the bust label is quickly thrown around even before they can legally order a drink. After all, a player’s draft position is determined by the evaluations of NBA teams, not the players’.

It’s funny because Muhammad’s numbers weren’t bad. His efficiency was fine and so was his rebounding, but it’s not what had been expected, so it wasn’t good enough. The criticisms mounted– some fair, but much of it unfair — leaving the rookie with a lot to prove. Muhammad came to summer league trying to show that he was not a ball-stopper to mixed results, but you could see the willingness. To make matters worse, Muhammad was kicked out of the rookie symposium after spending the previous months telling the public how his past controversies had been eye opening. And when the regular season started, Muhammad often found himself as a spectator.

Listen to Muhammad speak and you can tell that he’s sincere when he talks about personal growth or developing his game. He won’t feed you generic comments about going out there and working hard or other frustrating interview cliches. Muhammad even admitted before the season to a learning to curve to no longer being the go-to guy for the first time in his life. Timberwolves coaches said they needed to see him go out and play hard by doing things like rebound, an area in which he quite be quite aggressive. Honestly, listening to Muhammad and it’s hard to see any real character issues with him.

Muhammad’s positive attitude and hard work had not paid off immediately since his playing time had been scarce in the early months. Curious to see what they had, the Timberwolves sent him to the Iowa Energy of the NBADL. In just four games, Muhammad posted averages of 24.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game on 57 percent shooting in 27.8 minutes per contest. Since his return to Minnesota, Muhammad has parlayed that confidence boost to more minutes with the Timberwolves.

From November to January, Muhammad shot just 26 percent from the field. For a born scorer, the lack of steady minutes and playing in garbage time makes it difficult to ascertain much from this sample other than he wasn’t ready for the rotation yet. The cynics may say it’s because Rick Adelman simply doesn’t play rookies, but following him through preseason and summer league, he hadn’t showed he deserved minutes. On a team that came into the season with playoff aspirations, they simply didn’t have time to develop Muhammad as other teams may have.

So, they sent him to Iowa to get some game action and prove to the Timberwolves that he was able to benefit the team with more minutes.

Since his return, Muhammad has proven that he belongs. He averaged 6.4 points per game in eight February games and shot 45.7 percent. March was even better. Muhammad played 14 games — nearly doubling his number of games played for the season — shooting 53 percent from the field for 4.8 points per game and a respectable Usage Rate around 20. This was not the same player that we saw in camp, preseason, or early in the season.

Muhammad finally raised his field goal percentage to over 40 percent at the end of March and that’s because he’s been able to score from anywhere within the arc. Aside from the rim, he shoots over 48 percent from everywhere from three to twenty-two feet. Yeah, he shoots 48.2 percent from the rim, but that’s tolerable from a rookie guard playing 10 minutes per game. One of the most interesting things is that Muhammad shows a variety of ways to get points. We’ve seen him spot up, post-up and even drop floaters over defenders.

However, the most encouraging thing is that he appears to good shot selection. Being a 27.3 three point shooter, Muhammad takes a three less than 10 percent of the time, and is assisted on 51.7 percent of his shots. For a player that has been the guy his entire life and shot 37.7 percent from deep in college, this is an impressive amount of awareness and restraint. And for a team that is in dire need of bench scoring, his offense has been a revelation.

Yet, there’s a reason the Timberwolves’ bench is criticized for its inconsistency, and Muhammad warrants his own. In 36 games, Muhammad has just six assists total. That’s 0.2 per game and 0.7 per 36 minutes. To put it in perspective, he averaged 0.8 in 30 minutes per game in college, and has continued that level of production despite it being one of his biggest criticisms. Look, it’s not easy to change your playing style and essentially have to relearn the game, but it’s one of those things holding him back from more minutes. He’s undoubtedly a natural scorer, but what else do you bring to the table on those inevitable nights when those shots won’t fall? You better be rebounding and/or playing defense then.

That’s the other issue: his defense, it’s not blowing you away. This really isn’t atypical of young players entering the league, but by just about any metric you want to use, Muhammad has to improve on the defensive end. Like learning to become more of a distributor, it will take time and adapting further to the NBA game. He’s already shown an ability to get his shots in the flow of the offense, but he can only increase his value in the league by improving as a defender.

In an admittedly small sample, Shabazz Muhammad looks to be fitting the mold of a scoring specialist. The points are exciting and it’s hard not to be happy for him finding success, but there are reasons he isn’t playing more. Like pretty much every other first round pick, he has weaknesses to improve upon. When he does, he will seem more playing time, but being  a first round pick does not entitle him to that. The last few games, the Timberwolves have begun to alternate him and Chase Budinger as the first shooting guard off of the bench, so his hard work is paying off. Adelman has been dying for someone on his bench that he can trust on a nightly basis, therefore if he continues to improve he will play.

At the tender age of 21, Muhammad really has been run through the gamut of public perception. Muhammad certainly does have time to continue improving and it’s perfectly acceptable to get excited. It’s just important to remember that his draft slot is no determinant of his future success. Maybe he continues to grow, patches the holes in his game, and goes on to become a star. Or maybe, and most likely, he’s that spark plug off of the bench and regular rotation player. Ultimately, it’s too soon to know where Muhammad is headed in the NBA, but we know where he is now. It may not be where we thought he would be coming out of high school, but considering that some draftees never play an NBA game, he’s reached a level some have only dreamed of.

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for 1500ESPN in Minneapolis. Derek is also a co-editor for SB Nation's At the Hive-- the best Charlotte Hornets blog around. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.