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.