The trade of Corey Brewer to the Houston Rockets wasn’t just a signal that the Timberwolves are ready to go young, sacrificing a veteran player in the name of draft picks and a young shooter with upside (Troy Daniels). While that type of deal is the one rebuilding teams often make, and while this one made sense for Minnesota’s long-term plan, there was something else motivating the Wolves to move Brewer: freeing up playing time for second-year man Shabazz Muhammad.
Muhammad has started both games since the Houston deal was finalized, tallying 38 minutes versus Boston and 37 versus Indiana. Friday night, he put up 15 shots, made 11 of them, scored 26 points, pulled down 5 rebounds and dished out 5 assists. Sunday night he tallied 21 points on 18 shots, grabbed 6 boards and assisted on 2 baskets. He’s averaged 19.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 54% shooting in the 12 games since his 28-point outburst against Portland on November 30th. While Flip Saunders repeatedly stated during Muhammad’s ascension that the 22 year old needs to work on his defensive awareness, and hasn’t yet mastered the offensive sets the team is running, his raw production became impossible to ignore. Trading Brewer away means that it’s time for Muhammad to have any remaining growing pains under the bright lights.
Shabazz’s rookie season was coach Rick Adelman’s last, and as such, there wasn’t a ton of time or patience to be found for the mistakes of young players, which isn’t necessarily a knock on Adelman. He was here to squeeze all he could out of a roster that included Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio. Muhammad played just 290 minutes with the Timberwolves, recording more than 15 minutes in a single contest just four times before his season ended on April 5th with a sore knee.
This year, Kevin Love is gone, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio have all dealt with significant injuries, and the shorthanded Wolves have been desperate for a spark on either end of the floor. While Shabazz Muhammad leaves a little to be desired on the defensive side of the ball (as most young players do), his fundamentally sound post game, energy cutting from the baseline and fearlessness on the offensive glass injects immediate life into the Wolves offensive attack.
So what does his all-around offensive game look like? What does he do well, and how can he improve? And is there reason to think he’ll be able to gel with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin once they return from their injuries (sometime in January)? Below are several sections (with more videos than you probably need) detailing what he is good at, what he can improve upon, how smart teams have guarded him and speculation on whether his hot streak can continue.
Down on the blocks: Pays his mortgage on the left side, writes rent checks on the right
I. Home: the Left Block
As a lefty, It makes sense that Muhammad favors the left block in post-up situations. He can turn over his right shoulder towards the baseline, away from help defenders, with only his man to beat. When Shabazz catches the ball and performs this very move, he’s sunk 15 of 34 shots (44%) this season, which is hardly earth-shattering, but impressive all the same because those guarding him know his modus operandi. Overall on left block catches, Shabazz has made 22 of 50 shots (44%).
If a smaller guard draws the assignment of guarding him, or if Shabazz has found himself in a mismatch with a point guard, he attacks especially aggressively. Since most NBA guards aren’t used to defending postups as routinely as Shabazz employs them, he’s at an advantage unless a switch occurs. When it’s a pretty even battle on the block, Muhammad shows good patience, footwork and does a nice job of mixing up the timing on his jump hooks. He’ll use a few, one or no dribbles, depending on the feel of the play and the readiness of his defender:
One obvious countermove to his right shoulder turn, left handed hook is to start turning left shoulder and using his right hand for hooks. Since defenders are starting to overplay his left side, this option should be open to him, unless a help man is hovering close. This depends on the Wolves’ spacing, which isn’t always ideal (they’re last in the league in three point attempts, after all).
So far this season, Shabazz has only gone to his right hand out of the left block post for one shot attempt. It went in. I’d like to argue that he should do it more often:
Something Muhammad should do less often is use his left hand when he turns left shoulder. It works in the example below, as Shabazz draws a foul, but the defender is right there to contest. Using his right hand in a situation like this would make for a much cleaner release most of the time:
II. Vacation Condo: the Right Block
Early in the season, Muhammad made himself at home in the left block part of the neighborhood. He bought a house there, picked out furniture, started on some landscaping projects, set up cable and internet, and had even completed the cumbersome task of changing his address on his driver’s license. Recently, though, he’s begun making more and more trips to his vacation pad over on the right block:
Despite the quirky, somewhat awkward looking plays, Muhammad is actually 12 for 23 (52%) when posting up from the right block this season. When he’s over there, he mixes up turning over his left shoulder and his right. When he goes left, he still uses his left hand, which is right where his defender’s arms usually are. When he goes right, he usually shoots a running hook shot in the lane, where help defense is usually waiting. Sometimes he turns left shoulder to shoot a fadeaway jumper, which is not good (0 for 3 on those). Point is, on the left side, he has a go-to move, but hasn’t really developed one on the opposite side of the paint.
He showed a few signs of coming up with something new against Boston this past Friday night, adding a deft little hesitation step to this right block move:
The final video in this section is the most encouraging. It shows that the coaching staff knows they need to post him up on the right side more often to keep defenses honest, and it shows that Shabazz contiues to add wrinkles to his post up game to make it work on either side of the paint. Post up plays for Muhammad are becoming a main staple of the Wolves’ offense and are a convenient safety valve if their initial action fails to generate a shot. Bazz’s reliance on his left hand makes it somewhat easy to scout his game, though; it’ll be important that he continue to develop different moves from either side, as well as his comfort level using his right hand in the post, in order to maintain his success from these areas.
Offensive rebounding: Shabazz plays bigger than he is
Since Shabazz spends so much time on the block and in the corners, it makes sense that he’s able to be in position to collect a few offensive rebounds. What doesn’t make sense is how someone who is listed at 6’6 has a better offensive rebounding rate than Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Marcin Gortat, Blake Griffin, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert, just to name a few. It’d be nice to have a clear statistical or complex spatial reason why Shabazz is so good at grabbing offensive boards, but the truth is that he puts more effort into offensive rebounding than just about anyone, regardless of size:
The chameleon advanced training he underwent over this past summer led to a thinner, more defined Shabazz Muhammad, and a more explosive one at that. His ability to jump repeatedly helps him track down some of those offensive boards:
Gaining these extra possessions is a very valuable part of any offense. For the season, Muhammad has scored on 16 of the 30 (53%) possessions where he’s shot after grabbing an offensive board. While he’s only averaging 3.6 rebounds per game this season, a rather pedestrian number, half of those come on offense, which are more valuable than cleaning up a defensive board. As long as Shabazz is motivated to charge after teammates’ misses, the team stands to benefit from his hustle by having extra chances to score.
Weakside cuts and ducking into the paint for easy baskets
The most exciting development in Shabazz Muhammad’s game has been his newfound cutting ability, as well as his penchant for catching and finishing when he’s hanging around the basket. If his defender falls asleep or turns his attention elsewhere for half a second, Shabazz slashes to the rim decisively, shows his hands, and finishes an overwhelming majority of the time. He’s also very good at capitalizing on both his own hustle and defender apathy to gain great positioning near the hoop, providing a convenient outlet for ballhandlers making their way into the lane.
Knowing when and how to make off-ball cuts comes with experience. In some cases, it deviates from the set play, but if you make a good decision, it’ll result in a good look right at the rim. If you cut at the wrong time, it can clog up the paint and mess up the offensive spacing. Shabazz has done a good job of slashing to the rim at appropriate times, and when he attempts a shot on those plays, he’s made 18 of his 25 attempts (64%).
Ducking into the paint, or standing at the ready to catch and finish, has worked 78% of the time in a small sample size (9 attempts):
Transition: a mix of good hustle and occasionally bad decision-making
Shabazz’s hustle doesn’t just help him on the offensive glass or on his cuts – he’s also been pretty good in transition this season, making 14 of 24 (58.3%) of attempts in these situations. While his length-of-the-court dunk against the Rockets in Mexico City was a memorable play, he’s best if he doesn’t have to handle the ball on the fastbreak.
Here are some of Muhammad’s better moments on the fastbreak:
And here are a few transition possessions he’d probably like back. Notice on the first play (in New Orleans) that he goes to his left hand for the layup attempt, even though that’s right where the defender is. The other poor plays are owed to poor decision-making (par for the course for the Timberwolves, who’ve had a brutal time with spacing and sharing the ball in transition) and good defense:
Catch and shoot situations: room for improvement
Muhammad began the year by sinking just 10 of his first 30 catch and shoot jumpers. Since then, he’s made 4 of his past 6, leaving him at 39% for the season, hardly good, but headed in the right direction:
After his one season at UCLA, Shabazz Muhammad’s catch and shoot ability was one of the few things scouts seemed to like, as he sank 40% of his catch and shoot jumpers and 38% of his threes overall. As a pro, he’s shot it decently from three (36%), albeit in a small sample sample (28 total attempts). He’s also hit on 5-of-9 threes from the left corner, a trend worth keeping an eye on as his playing time increases.
His mechanics aren’t picture-perfect, but he has a compact, repeatable release. It takes time for some players to become consistent, reliable jump shooters; if Muhammad becomes an average or slightly above average spot-up guy, it’ll be another important part of his offensive repertoire. But he isn’t there quite yet.
Being guarded well by Oklahoma City, and how Shabazz can improve
Defenders with length bother most NBA players, and Shabazz Muhammad is no exception. Nicolas Batum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Trevor Ariza have all given him problems this season, but a recent game against the Thunder provided a few clear examples of how to defend Shabazz effectively.
First, both Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Durant, exceptionally long wing players, were matched up against him on the block. Unable to get comfortable enough to execute his lefty hook, Muhammad attempted to slide past to the basket (and into help defense) or tried a fallaway jumper (it was blocked anyway). When he wasn’t matched up against a either of those two, the Thunder did a great job of knowing when to send double teams to make his life difficult. Whoever was guarding him did a good job of using their positioning and hands to guide Shabazz into a left turn. Oklahoma City had a wise strategy (don’t let him turn right shoulder, double aggressively and force him to make a pass) and executed it well.
Can his hot streak continue?
The injuries to Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, the struggles of Thaddeus Young, and the youthful inconsistencies of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have left Shabazz Muhammad as the Timberwolves’ most reliable offensive option. It’s unlikely even the most optimistic Wolves fan or pundit could’ve foreseen this type of production out of him at such an early stage in his career. It’s equally unlikely that the most negative among us would’ve dared predict the rash of injuries and lackluster play from veterans that have left Bazz as the go-to guy.
But here we are. Following the Wolves’ loss to the Pacers on Sunday night, Flip Saunders estimated that the team has been using around 5% of their playbook since Ricky Rubio has been out. When he comes back, and when he’s joined by Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic, we’ll be able to see just what the coaching staff envisioned for this team when the season started.
How will Shabazz Muhammad fit in to a healthy Timberwolves team? He’s been a high usage player on a team without many other options. Will his game fit in once everyone returns?
There’s plenty of reason to think that it will. His raw numbers (or “counting stats”) will undoubtedly drop, but that’ll be okay. Over the 12 game stretch Muhammad has broken out, the Wolves have posted the 3rd-worst Offensive Rating in the league. It’s not as if he’s anchoring a powerhouse attack which will be disrupted by the return of the three starters.
Shabazz has shown an improved ability to cut from the weakside, finish in transition and crash the offensive glass. Those three skills ought to fit in with just about any personnel group. Posting Muhammad up can be a second unit staple if Kevin Martin reclaims his spot in the starting lineup. If Muhammad is in the starting lineup for good, a Rubio-Martin-Shabazz pairing actually fits together pretty well. (So does Rubio-Martin-Wiggins, for that matter; the only one that’d be a little dicey is any wing pairing of Wiggins and Muhammad, which we’re getting a lot of right now, with very mixed results.)
If nothing else, this stretch ought to boost Shabazz Muhammad’s confidence. He’s proven to everyone (and most importantly, himself) that the offseason training regimen he underwent yielded positive results. The night he was drafted, reaction was mixed, if slightly tilted to the negative side. He’s proven everyone wrong. He’s not a prima donna. He doesn’t have a poor work ethic. He can still get buckets despite his unconventional, funky game.
So for now, he’s one of the few bright spots on a team that’s losing at a rapid clip (3-19 since starting the season 2-2). Soon, we’ll find out if he can be a contributor to a slightly more competitive group. In a rebuilding season, finding new storylines to follow and new potential building blocks to analyze is necessary. Root for the little things, take pride in small victories. His improvement is a good sign for the Timberwolves, a good sign for their fans, and most importantly a good sign for Shabazz Muhammad. He belongs in this league. There’s no longer any doubt about that.