The news that the Wolves have assigned rookie Shabazz Muhammad to their NBA D-League affiliate in Des Moines is good. Playing with the Iowa Energy (including erstwhile Timberwolf Othyus Jeffers) for at least a week will give Muhammad some burn, and it’s clear from his recent short stints off the bench at the end of blowouts that he’s hungry to get going and actually do something on a court (over the last five games he’s averaging 12.7 points per 36 minutes on 50% shooting).
I’ve already seen at least one person say that you don’t send your first rounders down to the D-League, and the comment section on that Star Tribune post couldn’t be clearer: “Just another fine example of the Wolves terrible draft history”; “Meanwhile Trey Burke [picked by the Wolves then traded for the picks that would become Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng] named Rookie of the Month”; “A top 15 pick going to play in the D-league. What’s wrong with this picture”.
But no one’s going back in time to redo the draft and conceiving of the D-League as some kind of punishment, as a purgatory for disappointing players is tremendously shortsighted. It’s sort of like looking at a cell phone in 2000 and wondering why anyone would want to put a camera in it. One only need look at the successes of Jeremy Lamb (a 12th overall pick) and Terrence Jones (and 18th overall pick) this season after spending time in the D-League last year to find examples of rookies picked in a similar spot to Muhammad’s who benefited tremendously from consistent playing time. (In case you’ve missed it, Lamb is averaging almost 10 points in 21 minutes per game while shooting 48/40/95 this season.) And over the last several years, the NBA is peppered with similar success stories: Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, etc.
Yes: the D-League’s current identity is as a stop for not-quite-there players or ones on the way down, but that’s only because that’s the way it’s been used. Like any tool, you can use it for whatever it’s good for, and the more teams work with their D-League affiliations to cultivate talent of any level — from future starters to solid bench players — the better the league will become at doing those things.
I also think some of the negativity about the D-League comes from a misguided perception of the role of context in how players develop. We tend to think that basketball is basketball and that wherever you play it is wherever you play it, but there’s a lot to be learned from experiencing different contexts for what you’re trying to do, and this applies to many things in life.
I’m a musician, and when my first band was coming up in Western Massachusetts, we played three-hour gigs: three 45-minutes sets with 15 minutes breaks in between. We got good at it. What started out as almost all blues standards gradually developed into a repertoire of originals and classics, and we developed an intuitive understanding of how to pace each set and how to pace the night as a whole.
But then when we got the chance to open up for other artists or started playing showcase gigs in New York City, we had no idea how to deliver a concise punch in a 30 to 40 minute set. I would often leave the stage after those short sets feeling good and warmed up, but with no place to put that hard-won energy. But all that time learning how to deliver a consistent effort over three hours did help us to adapt to the demands of a single short set and eventually we got pretty good at them. I found a satisfaction in putting together a solid single set that was different from the marathon of three back-to-back sets.
Weirdly, though, I felt like our ability to play those marathon nights took a hit for a while as we worked on this other way of playing. Ultimately, it was the moving back and forth between these two approaches that made us better overall, more flexible and able to deal with all kinds of different situations.
If we can get past where Muhammad was picked or that he was picked over other guys we see doing well, if we can understand that Rick Adelman was simply not going to play him much because that’s just not how Rick Adelman is, then I think we can see how Muhammad running 3-on-3 drills and sitting and watching every game save for blowouts was not going to help him. If he’s going to become anything, he needs to get back to playing the basketball equivalent of three 45-minute sets. He needs some space to actually play, to get a chance to be a guy getting 20-plus points a night. Maybe he shows enough to earn spot minutes when he comes back up to the Wolves, or maybe it’s enough to get another team interested in him.
Whichever way it goes, it’s hard to see it as being a negative for either Muhammad or the Wolves as a basketball team. If he grabs the opportunity in a positive way, he earns a better chance for himself in the NBA. If he doesn’t, he’s shown something else about himself. Feel free to take this as an indictment of the Wolves’ drafting strategy and the front office if you want. Just don’t take it that way because you can’t see what the D-League has to offer to a young player: a chance to experience a different context, a new challenge that can build new habits and understandings.