2014-15 Roster Review: Shabazz Muhammad


DISCLAIMER: I really dislike the hindsight look at what should and shouldn’t have happened in NBA Drafts. I think it’s too easy to skew the facts of what was thought at the time and what we’ve tricked ourselves into changing the narrative to in our minds. With that said, take a brief trip back with me to the 2013 NBA Draft and where we were with the draft night move made by Flip Saunders.

The No. 9 pick was in the Wolves’ possession and the majority of us were clamoring for C.J. McCollum or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Mock drafts were refreshed daily, hoping we would see one of these guys projected to drop to the Wolves. There was a brief pipe dream of trading up for Victor Oladipo, but nothing ever came close to materializing. On draft night, the selection almost tricked us.

“With the ninth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select Trey Burke from the University of Michigan…”

The point guard jokes started rolling in again because people don’t understand how draft night trades work. The Wolves selected Burke for the Utah Jazz and shipped him off in exchange for the 14th pick and the 21st pick in the draft. Shabazz Muhammad was taken 14th. Gorgui Dieng was taken 21st. The trade was completed, announced, and draft caps were exchanged amongst the prospects.

After going 1-11 to start the season while Trey Burke healed from a broken hand, the Jazz jumped out to a 9-13 record in their first 22 games with Burke. He was the point guard presence the team was sorely lacking in the first 12 games of the season and immediately it looked like the Wolves were going to get killed for having committed another draft night bungle in a long history of draft night bungles.

Why did they take Shabazz Muhammad? Why doesn’t Shabazz Muhammad pass the ball at all? Is Gorgui Dieng ever going to play? Why isn’t Muhammad playing in the D-League?

Shabazz was kind of a novelty in his rookie season. He couldn’t get decent playing time for a couple of reasons. 1) He was a rookie and it’s hard for rookies to crack rotations on a team hunting for the playoffs. 2) He was a rookie who had no idea where he was supposed to be on defense. 3) He was a rookie who allegedly didn’t know the offensive sets all that well.

By many accounts, Muhammad actually destroyed individual matchups in practice for most of his rookie season. But if you can’t trust the guy to know where he’s supposed to be in the team concept, it’s a little harder to take advantage of that talent for extended minutes on the floor. It’s something fans used against Rick Adelman all year because of the frustration of playoff hopes being buried, but really it’s a pretty justifiable reason for the rotation of a team expected to compete for a postseason berth.

Bazz was also limited in the way he scored. He was amazing at crashing the offensive boards, posting up from the left block, and that was about it. Everything else needed some work and so did he body. He was pudgy as a rookie, and admittedly needed to shed some pounds, get stronger, and go be a dominant physical force.

That’s exactly what Shabazz did this past summer. He sculpted his body and got in position to become a terror in the open floor. He wanted to outrun everybody. He wanted to outwork everybody. He didn’t want to get tired doing it. And he didn’t want to lose his physical advantage against wings by shedding weight but not building muscle and strength.

If there were any stubborn, lingering doubts about whether Bazz belonged in the NBA, they were dunked on in transition this season.

Shabazz Muhammad was a hunter during his sophomore season in the NBA. He hunted out big dunks in transition, seemingly going from the dotted line on dunks every other game. He hunted out dunks in the half court from the left baseline, often looking to prey on a defense losing track of him. Bazz was one of the most dangerous off-ball guys the Wolves had.

The joke when looking at his production in scoring last season was whether or not he was able to score anywhere away from the left block in the post. He dominated opposing wings on the lower left block by dribbling into a turn over his right shoulder and putting up an accurate hook shot. He was left block dominant though with 31 of his 32 post-up possessions ending in a shot, turnover, or free throw happening on the left block.

He wasn’t a catch-and-shoot option. He wasn’t a 3-point shooter. He wasn’t a guy who would isolate like we saw at UCLA.

A lot of that changed from his rookie season to his sophomore season in the NBA. Shabazz Muhammad was a problem for the opposing team. He was a bully. He was taking lunch money and tossing out swirlies to anybody who thought they could handle his strength in the paint. He wouldn’t have won the award, but without the torn ligament in his thumb that required surgery, he may have entered the perimeter of Most Improved Player discussions.

Muhammad’s effectiveness on the left block was actually taken away, as he made just 33.3% of his shots on the left block and scored 50 points on 64 possessions (48.1% FG and 29 points on 31 possessions as a rookie on the left block). So what did he do with teams more prepared to defend his sweet spot? He moved over to the right block and made himself a problem there. He went from 3% of his post-ups happening on the right block to 38.4%, and he killed there.

He scored 53 points in 43 right block post possessions, which put him in the 95th percentile in the NBA there. He was OK turning over the left shoulder, but that bread-and-butter move of turning over the right shoulder for a short jumper or a hook shot was too deadly. He made 60% of his right block shots.

His game didn’t just exist in the post though; he became a better shooter. It’s hard to say he’s definitely a good 3-point shooter now because he only took 51 attempts this season. However, he improved from 27.3% to 39.2%. He went from being a 28.6% catch-and-shoot guy as a rookie to making 36.8% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities. He was 34.9% on guarded C-and-S opportunities and 39.4% on unguarded.

Bazz went from being a mediocre isolation scorer (15 points on 18 possessions) to being much more productive (24 points on 20 possessions). These aren’t huge sample sizes for Shabazz, and that can make it difficult to evaluate how much he truly improved as a player. But you saw improvement both in the trust of putting him on the floor (it’s much easier when you’re not fighting for a playoff spot) and in the production that came with that time on the floor (his body change was a massive contributor to this production).

He even became a willing passer, nearly tripling his gaunt assist rate of 3.4% to 9.6%.

Defensively, Muhammad showed both improvement and still needing quite a ways to go. He looked confused in pick-and-roll coverage, which almost everybody on the team suffered trying to defend this season. However, he defended isolation plays well, blew up hand-off attempts, and closed out well on guys coming off screens. He was consistently in better help position, but could have reacted much faster to moving away from the ball to find the next pass recipient.

Overall, the great thing about watching Shabazz Muhammad’s second season in the NBA is it eliminated any doubts of whether or not he can play. It also eliminated doubts that he should be a part of the core of the latest rebuilding process. He was the arguably the Wolves’ best scorer, averaging 21.3 points per 36 minutes (Kevin Martin led team 21.5) and posting the highest true shooting percentage (55.9%) of any non big man.

He’s no longer a question for Wolves fans; he’s now a question for opposing defensive assignments, which is a big step in the right direction.

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18 Responsesso far.

  1. farnorth says:

    I was one of those who complained, but I was so down on losing out on KCP. That was an amazing recovery by Flip. getting two rotation guys at 14 and 21 is better than anything we got since Rubio was drafted.

  2. Jello says:

    Bazz has a lot of potential and I think we can say he will definitely be a pivotal role player at a minimum. With how small ball is dominating the finals, Bazz is almost a perfect small ball four in my mind. He’ll destroy the offensive boards against a small ball PF (ex: Harrison Barnes) and is athletic enough to cover on defense (although this is an area he still has to improve). Put Bazz with a center like Towns (please) who is athletic enough to stay in and provide rim protection and post presence even in a small ball lineup since he is quick enough to cover guys like Draymond Green and you have a physically imposing small ball lineup down low that can dominate the glass.

    Bazz’s skillset is still relatively unique and doesn’t apply to all game situations, however, which makes it hard to start him. I wouldn’t mind seeing him start next to Rubio and Wiggins, though, and do think it can work if they work on defense. I think Wiggins can post up SG’s and impose his will while still covering them. Same with Bazz. If they both can shoot consistently from three while being physically dominant for their position they could be a very deadly combo with Rubio running the point and getting them into position.

    Some things I’m interested in from AWAW are Nemanja Bjelica and draft analysis. Is Bjelica going to be a member of the team? If so what is his likely contribution going to be? If he’s traded, what is his value? For the draft, Towns vs. Russell vs. Okafor would be great. Mudiay is somewhat in the conversation as well if trading Rubio is actually a consideration.

    Thanks for all the work you guys do here, it’s always a great read!

  3. gjk says:

    After the improvement he showed between seasons, it’ll be interesting to see how far he can expand his game: ballhandling/passing (possibly the next skill in high demand after watching point-center Draymond Green and point-forwards Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala), defense, and shooting off screens are some of the possible ways he goes from a nice bench option to something more. He earned his minutes last season, and it’s good to know that sort of thing still works in player development in the midst of “play the young guys unlimited minutes philosophy” that dominates such conversation.

  4. pyrrol says:

    I liked the Shabazz pick. Coming out of high school he was highly touted, but fell out of favor in the draft. The potential was there for him to outshine his downward draft trend. He was worth a gamble in the range we picked him up.

    I’m not saying there was nothing to Adleman’s complaints/decisions, but after a while I began to question all of Adleman’s decisions with what I believe to be good cause. We didn’t get the real Adleman, we got the ‘oops, I should have retired instead of taking this last job’ Adleman.

    Shabazz seemed to flourish as soon as Adleman was gone. Of course, a lot of this had to do with Shabazz growing up, learning the game more and improving skills and his body. He’s a great example of NBA fitness, conditioning and strength programs and what they can do for a player–he became noticeably more explosive and athletic after his transformation. I never got all that ‘he doesn’t know the offensive or defensive sets’ talk. Clearly, the likes of LaVine, and at times Wiggins didn’t, yet it never affected their playing time. At some point this last season, such talk became irrelevant, thank goodness. Shabazz needs to improve his defense, but so does every single Wolf. Feels odd to single him out in this respect, and if anyone could use a lecture about it, I think it is our coaching staff (which looks to be the same next season).

    I caution people against getting too hot on the small ball thing. What happened is just one season, no matter how it went down and you can’t give too much credence to one season. Beyond that, for all the talking up that Golden State got, they had some issues during the post season. My friend called them the ‘Seattle Seahawks of the NBA’ in that they got down in some series and just assumed they would turn it around. That’s a dangerous way to go. Without key injuries to every opponent, they may have not even gotten to the finals. I also felt like the top tier competition was weak. There were a lot of flawed, low level, mid-level playoff teams with good records (in the west…) but not many finals level teams. A beat up, new and flawed Cleveland team limped to the finals and gave Golden State a scare. We aren’t talking one of the best teams of all time here. So I caution redrawing the whole concept of building an NBA team around what happened this season.

    • gjk says:

      It’s a huge stretch to compare the 2013 rookies’ situation to the 2014 rookies’ situation. If their 2014-15 playoff hopes hadn’t ended in mid-November, LaVine would’ve barely seen the floor until they ended in January or February; that’s the main reason Muhammad and Dieng weren’t playing earlier in 2013-14. Wiggins and Muhammad can’t be compared, either. They had plenty of reasons to give one the benefit of the doubt (the main asset in return for giving up an All-Star) and make the other prove himself (they rightfully assumed the other options would be more productive). And we can’t grade grasping offensive and defensive sets only on “getting it” or “not getting it.” It’s not 100% or 0%, and there’s a huge difference between, say, 60% and 30%.

      Every team’s success is based on how they utilize their personnel within the rules. Small ball worked because Draymond Green could hold his own in the post and make plays off the dribble, but it obviously doesn’t work with most PFs because they lack enough perimeter offensive and defensive skills. That’s the part that becomes a trend: finding bigs who can guard inside and out and have at least 1 perimeter offensive skill. There’s a reason fat Boris Diaw is so valuable to the Spurs. It’s not just one season that small ball worked, though; Miami started Bosh or 6’8 Udonis Haslem at center in every finals game during their 2 title seasons, and Shane Battier started at PF next to Bosh in 8/12 finals games during those seasons.

      • Zach Harper says:

        Hey, that’s Big Boned Boris Diaw, thank you very much!

      • pyrrol says:

        Adleman didn’t play the rookies enough, period. He also did a bunch of other not so good, too by the book things. I was personally not pleased with his coaching in MN.

        Under Flip rookies got a lot more leeway. He had opportunities despite the injuries to play LaVine less and not at the point quite as much, and instead choose to throw him in the fire. Obviously, this may or may not be a the best idea, I’m not sure, and would not of happened if we were in danger of making the playoffs. Still, Shabazz has proved he’s good enough by now that he should have gotten some playing time all along.

        There is a huge range in grasping the game. Shabazz was never as low on that scale as I think he was painted out to be, particularly when you looked at last season and how clueless the whole team was.

        Small ball is the new trend, and all teams need a good small ball option to fall into when needed. But it isn’t the core way to build a champion team. You mainly talk about stretch PF’s here, but at times GS had no center and a tweener forward in the power spot. That’s pretty extreme and not doable without Curry level shooting (which no one else has). And it’s simply not a formula to follow for likely champions.

        • Zach Harper says:

          Comparing what Adelman did and what Flip did with rookie minutes doesn’t make sense because those two seasons had very different goals. And the idea that Shabazz is good now which means he should’ve been playing all along really doesn’t make sense. That’s not how that works. He was driven to work harder with his personal game because he had to prove he belonged on the court.

          • While that’s true, Adelman’s lineups were a liability the whole time he was here. Remember how long it took him to start giving Rubio minuets over Ridnour? Or how Wes Johnson basically started the whole season over Williams and Beasley? I mean, all three are chapters in the book of cautionary tales, but at least the later two still had potential upside at that point. And even at their worst were still better than Wes.

            If I remember my history correctly that was also the case with Pek and Darko.

            So anyway, there’s a clear pattern of him playing established players over others who were clearly better. And while that doesn’t prove that Adelman was making a mistake by not playing the rookies like Bazz more, it does show that making that kind of mistake would have fit with his over all pattern of coaching while here.

  5. College Wolf says:

    Agreed. GS got sooooo lucky.

    • farnorth says:

      frnorth1@yahoo.com is my paypal just incase anyone here remembers making a bet on the finals 🙂 all I’m saying…

      • College Wolf says:

        I would if we ever confirmed it 🙂

        Last post I saw on the old site was you saying you would get $40, however I said I’d only take the bet if I got the 2:1 odds.

        • farnorth says:

          Yes too bad that old site went down because what was actually said is you were giving 2:1. But it’s cool I knew I was going to win (which I did) and I knew you weren’t going to pay (which you aren’t)… It was really just me reminding you who won the bet 🙂 …

          It’s not a big deal that’s not why we come here.

          • College Wolf says:

            Fair enough. However I would have done it if confirmed I got $40. That’s what I meant and the only reason I would have even done the bet. Oh well.

  6. Berdj J. Rassam says:

    The Wolves are going to be mired in the bottom half of the West for the foreseeable future.

  7. gjk says:

    I can’t reply directly to this for some reason, but there is no Adelman pattern of limiting the minutes of deserving players. Rubio played in crunchtime in the first game of his career against the eventual Western Conference champs. He was averaging 28.5 mpg in his 10 games off the bench before he became a starter. Choosing between Wes/Beasley/Williams isn’t a case of keeping down good players because none of them were good, and it’s revisionist history to say a rookie Williams or a 4th-year Beasley had more potential than a 2nd-year Johnson. I honestly don’t know what to make of the Pek/Darko thing; Kahn was trying to trade Pek early in the 2011-12 season after a lockout-shortened camp, Darko and Randolph were guys he traded for, Pek was drafted by McHale, and I think (?) Pek was injured early that season. Either way, he was starting by the 19th game.

    • I see I also cannot reply. But anyway, I’m just calling it as I remember it, and I’ll grant that I may have remembered it incorrectly, or simply called it incorrectly at the time.

      But that said, even if Rubio did get minutes, he still was kept out of the starting role for quite some time, which often resulted in deficits that he had to try and over come when he finally did come in. Some digging shows that it was a common sentiment at the time too: http://www.cbssports.com/mcc/blogs/entry/22748484/34310310.

      And while your sentiment about Wes may have been true at the start of the season, by the end he was a clear bust. And again, some digging shows that this was a common belief at the time: http://www.canishoopus.com/2012/1/11/2699606/a-pattern-of-behavior-wesley-johnson.

      On the other hand, Beasley was putting in more effort, being humble in interviews and saying he needed to make changes, and still managed to score at an elite rate with limited to minutes on the floor with other players who couldn’t really dribble, shoot or pass (except for J.J. Berea, if you want to count him). And even doubting Williams potential, he was still a better “right now” player.

      And one final article showing that the fans seemed to know that it was time to start Pek over Darko before Adelman did: https://sotasports.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/puttin-up-points-peks-path-of-devastation-rages-through-new-jersey/.

      So, I think you can argue about how justified or egregious it was, but I don’t think you can say that there is no pattern there at all.

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