A New Context: Muhammad Assigned to Iowa Energy

Steve McPherson —  January 4, 2014 — 6 Comments

Shabazz Muhammad, Shawne Williams

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.

Steve McPherson

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6 responses to A New Context: Muhammad Assigned to Iowa Energy

  1. The only negative is that he didn’t go to the D-League sooner, though I understand why they wanted to have him around in case of emergency while Chase recovered from his injury.

  2. Muhammad resisted being sent to the D-league, playing time or no, before being “pursuaded to go” by Flip and Adelman this week, and we will recall that Flip threatened to demote him to the D-league when Muhammad was kicked out of the rookie orientation over the summer to teach him a lesson. So while I agree that the D-league is a valuable resource for developing young players and should be good for Muhammad if he wants to get what he can get out it (not clear to me that is actually the case, but we can hope), a big part of the reason why the D-league is viewed as a demotion / punishment by fans is because it is sometimes used that way by GMs and viewed that way by players. So I don’t agree this is an issue of fan education, but rather that the teams themselves need to take a more coherent and professional position on how to best utilize the D-league.

    I did find it odd that Flip said that he (in consultation with Adelman) expects Muhammad will get more playing time in 4-5 games with the Iowa Energy than he probably will with the Wolves the rest of this season. Is there any real doubt that Rick has written off Muhammad as a contributor and if so what is the point of fans debating whether he was a good pick? Clearly the coach doesn’t think he is worth much, and peole on this board can’t both talk about what a great coach Adelman is and then at the same time say fans who agree with him (i.e., Muhammad was a wasted pick) are judgmental idiots.

  3. I agree that this is the only way Shabazz can muster up some trade value. Hope he finds an opportunity somewhere else, like Wes and Derrick. And yes, i wish we could get Giannis “Alphabet” Antetokounmpo real bad. He is gonna be a monster. He would be so good as “3” in Minnesota. He reminds me of Batum, but more length. Scary how good he can be. Why didn’t our front office see that much potential in Giannis on the wing?

  4. Mac this is how Adelman coaches. He does not like to give rookies minutes unless they earn it, but the problem is they cannot earn it if he will not let them. We hired a veteran coach when we needed one to teach and develop our younger players. He has no interest in waiting on him or anyone else to develop he wants to win now.

  5. So much flawed reasoning here. Muhammad is mainly going down because of the D-League Showcase, which compresses 4 games into a week and forces him to compete against guys who are trying to show themselves. As for whether it helps, he has zero guarantee of playing time because the Wolves don’t run the team; is the Iowa coach likely to feature him over a guy whose been on the team for most of the season and knows the plays? Likely not. As for whether this is a wasted pick, Steve gave 2 perfect examples of 2nd-year players who were in Muhammad’s shoes last season. Lamb and Jones weren’t ready last year; now, they’re both NBA-caliber rotation players on good teams. Most good teams don’t give rookies regular minutes unless they earn them. And enough with “this team needs a teaching coach” stuff. No head coach is a teaching coach; that’s what assistants, player-development guys, and the offseason are for.

  6. On draft day I was excited to pick up Burke even though we had a glut of point guards at the time. I literally groaned when he was traded for what ended up to be Muhammad and Dieng. I liked the Dieng pick due to defense but I have little to no faith in Muhammad based on his decline from HS to UCLA. I’m not really expecting much out of him at all but hopefully this time in D-League will help him. I live in a D-League town and the games can be useful/helpful but Muhammad needs to show quickly he can dominate that competition when given the chance.

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