As I’ve written here probably too many times, first round picks — especially lottery picks — come with certain expectations because of where they were drafted. Some of that makes sense. A team is a failure/bad and their “reward” for being such is an opportunity to improve by selecting from the best young players coming into the league. The hope is these players will improve things right away, when often that’s not the case at all. The biggest improvements come from veterans on the team, not rookies coming through and setting the league on fire.
If a team misses the playoffs and is in the fabled lottery, they’re presumably picking a player who will automatically get them over the hump, especially if they’re at the end of the lottery selections. Shabazz Muhammad was a surprise pick to many of us. The Wolves selected Trey Burke out of Michigan with the ninth pick because they agreed to a trade with the Utah Jazz that would send him to Salt Lake City and give the Wolves two first round selections for Flip Saunders to use. The first of those selections was a surprise when they took the former high school phenom out of UCLA. The second pick ended up being Gorgui Dieng out of Louisville, whom I’ll also write about in a week and a half.
With Muhammad, it was a surprise. We spent so much pre-draft focus on C.J. McCollum, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Victor Oladipo that Muhammad never seemed like a match for this team. And maybe he realistically wasn’t. The potential and talent was something Flip didn’t want to pass up though, and the plan to make Muhammad a future contributor to this team was set in motion. Unfortunately, selling patience to a fan base that hasn’t been offered playoff seats to purchase in a decade is easier said than done, and understandably so.
Shabazz was never going to be a guy who got a lot of minutes in his rookie season. He just wasn’t. As much as Dieng was going to be a project as a big man, Shabazz was going to be a project as a professional athlete and a contributor. His shaky past, rapidly increasing age, and underdeveloped sense of team basketball all needed to be sorted out as a professional and as a player. Not to mention, the Wolves ended up spending $56.8 million over the next three-to-four seasons on wing players for this team. The presences of Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and Chase Budinger meant Muhammad was going to be a pupil of guys who supposedly know how to play team basketball from the wing.
Factor in the mishap at the Rookie Transition Program prior to training camp and Muhammad was going to need a lot of injuries to find his way onto the court for significant minutes. Rick Adelman didn’t give him much of a leash either. Muhammad was going to have to destroy guys and be the best wing on the roster in order to prove he was worthy of minutes on a team trying to make the playoffs. I, for one, am a fan of this approach because just giving minutes to rookies can be a troublesome decision, unless they’re far and above superior to the other options.
Muhammad wasn’t. So he sat on the bench and he sat a lot. In the first three months of the season, Shabazz played 51 minutes in 13 games. He looked lost on the court too. In those 51 minutes, he was 6-of-23 from the field (26%) and 1-of-3 from downtown. He didn’t know where to be on either end of the floor and he was tentative in his action. Sometime in January, the Wolves finally made the decision to send Muhammad to the D-League, which is where he should have been quite often during the early parts of the season. In four games with the Iowa Energy, Shabazz flourished in an individual manner, posting incredible scoring stats and great efficiency.
He was called up after the four games there and went back to the bench. Slowly over the last three months of the season, he was slowly given more and more opportunities to be a spark for the Wolves. And while he still looked lost on both ends of the floor, any tentative feelings were replaced with energetic outbursts to make plays, regardless of whether or not he knew which play he was making. That’s where the promise of coming through as a lottery pick started to show.
Shabazz had two weapons at his disposal. His outside shot wasn’t much to consider and he wasn’t making plays for others, but he could do two things really well. He rebounded the hell out of the ball and he could score on the left block. This is what he did over and over during the final three months of the season when he played 238 minutes of 24 games. He made 50.4% of his shots and grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in this stretch. Granted it was in limited minutes but Muhammad was the best offensive rebounding “guard” in basketball. Basketball-Reference lists him as a guard and no other guard had an offensive rebounding rate over 7.4%; Muhammad’s was 8.8%.
Offensively, Shabazz was a problem on the left block for defenders. He manhandled guards and small forwards there, looking as comfortable as a seasoned big man. He almost exclusively turned to his right shoulder to put up a left-handed half-hook and it was an incredible weapon for him. Taking a look at his shot chart will only confirm this scoring prowess from the left block:
Bazz was 13-of-24 (54.2%) turning over his right shoulder on the left block, scoring 29 total points on 27 possessions when factoring in possessions that led to free throws. As a catch-and-shoot guy, Muhammad struggled. He made just 4-of-14 (28.6%) on these opportunities, but was 3-of-5 on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. 14 attempts is hardly anywhere close to telling us how he could be in the future with this kind of stuff. For what it’s worth, he shot 40% on catch-and-shoot attempts in his lone year at UCLA with an effective field goal of 56.5% on 115 attempts. If he could approach that kind of consistency as a pro, he’d be a valuable weapon in that respect.
Basically, if you want to know where Shabazz looks most comfortable scoring, the Venn diagram below has you covered:
Overall, I think Bazz’s rookie season was a success in most respects. He learned that if he wanted to play, he had to prove he belonged. The Wolves didn’t practice much throughout the regular season but word from people around the organization was that Shabazz destroyed guys off of hustle and ability in a fair amount of time. The problem was it didn’t really come off of play within the team concept and he was never much of a defender. This is a good thing, in my mind. It shows him you have the ability to play but you need to show you have the mental capacity to be a player. That’s what you want with a project like Muhammad.
Sure, he’s a lottery pick and that’s going to come with expectations. But he was a lottery pick in one of the worst rookie classes we’ve ever seen, so what does that ultimately mean? Muhammad will have a chance in the next year or two to prove he belongs in the rotation of this team and that he can be a contributor. It will create some tough minutes situations for the next coach but that means the Wolves have depth, which is exactly what you want to hit on with your first round picks. I don’t know what the future holds for Shabazz Muhammad and his career, but he showed me in limited flashes as a rookie he belongs in the NBA. We just have to figure out where.