Shabazz Muhammad is maybe the most tantalizing enigma the Minnesota Timberwolves have had over the last decade. While the acquisition of Michael Beasley certainly allowed player potential thoughts to dance around in our heads years ago, the presence of Muhammad is something that has pulled us all over the place as he looks to complement the long-term building blocks of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
We’re long past the idea that maybe he was a bad or risky pick. Bazz has proven to be a real weapon on the offensive end of the floor, but figuring out where he fits within the latest construct of this Wolves roster is a bit tricky. The tease of Muhammad on the court is heightened. He can be a scoring burst within the second unit. He can be an overwhelming force moving toward the rim. He can be the difference between winning and losing the rebounding battle, despite being just 6’6″ in shoes. He can flip the script on the opposition with his bully ball at the wing position.
These are the beautifully chaotic parts of Muhammad’s game. The frighteningly chaotic things about his game also leave you confused. How is such an athletic person seemingly so cement-footed on defense? Where did his 3-point shot go this year? Why did he become worse at driving to the hoop? Is there a reason he couldn’t find a role under Sam Mitchell when you’d expect Bazz to be someone who could even thrive in an old school style of game?
Muhammad definitely isn’t someone you build your team around, but the question is whether or not you can build with him. The difference there is you wouldn’t make him a cornerstone, but can you make him into an extremely valuable role player? The guy that comes to mind is Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs or maybe even DeMarre Carroll last year with the Atlanta Hawks. Nobody is going to confuse Bazz for these guys because they’re better shooters and better defenders. But the 3-and-D role player is one of the most valuable commodities in the NBA and something players can become to cash in. So is it worth wondering whether or not Bazz can be this guy?
First, we have to get through the red tape and upcoming contract stuff. Muhammad goes into next season as a possible rookie extension player. The 2016-17 season will be Bazz’s fourth in the NBA, and assuming the Wolves tender a qualifying offer in the summer of 2017, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. And that’s when things get complicated with figuring out just how good Muhammad is, how good he can be, and what that is worth to the Wolves. Unless he’s willing to get an extension below market value before the deadline at the end of October, there won’t be an extension. We’ll likely see Muhammad take the same risk so many in-between players like Evan Fournier did this past October.
Decline a below market extension and try to play your way into big money the following offseason. And that might actually be the best thing that can happen for this Wolves team because it would mean a lot for the first year of development under Tom Thibodeau and company. So how does that development happen and what does Bazz become in just one year under Thibs? That’s the complex part for both sides.
I was watching “Ex Machina” for the first time this past weekend, and there comes this part between the two male roles in it when they’re discussing a Jackson Pollock painting. For those who don’t know, Pollock had a style of painting in which he’d just drip or pour the paint onto the canvas in random and imaginative patterns. He was one of the biggest figures in abstract expressionism, and his artwork is historically renowned and extremely expensive. Assumed randomness fueled his creativity and nothing was planned out.
In this discussion in the movie, we have this exchange about Pollock:
Nathan: He let his mind go blank, and his hand go where it wanted. Not deliberate, not random. Some place in between. They called it automatic art. What if Pollock had reversed the challenge? What if instead of making art without thinking, he said, “You know what? I can’t paint anything, unless I know exactly why I’m doing it.” What would have happened?
Caleb: He never would have made a single mark.
Nathan: Yes! You see, there’s my guy, there’s my buddy, who thinks before he opens his mouth. He never would have made a single mark. The challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic.
When I watched this exchange, I immediately thought of Shabazz. That’s how big of a basketball nerd I am. I watched a movie about sexy robots and thought of the Wolves’ fourth best scorer. But where this sexual confusion took me is something I think is very interesting regarding the future of Shabazz Muhammad.
The reason he didn’t play as a rookie under Rick Adelman was although he was productive and energetic, he couldn’t be trusted to know where to be on either end of the floor. He simply didn’t get it. That team was trying to make the playoffs and they couldn’t afford teaching the basics on the court during games to him. As much as people wanted to see what he could do and as much as he was killing veteran players in practice, it wasn’t trustworthy going into real game action. There was an automatic impact he could have but that only lasts so long against teams throwing their best efforts at you in games that matter.
The next year under Flip Saunders, that pressure to win wasn’t there. The Wolves were rebuilding and that meant you could afford to lose games while letting players find themselves on the court. And in those cases, you could unleash the beast that is Bazz when he’s allowed to just go out there and play. He makes wings look like point guards defending the post. He was in a rhythm shooting the ball. He was a hurricane in transition. He gave us the excitement you’d want for a young role player in his second year. This was Bazz somewhere between deliberate and random in the way he attacked.
That only takes you so far when you’re trying to help a team become good. In my mind, Bazz is the perfect Sixth Man. He can come in and detonate the opponent’s second unit. He’s a wrecking ball coming through the lane, and when that 3-point shot is there, you have to make a hard decision in the way you close out against him. Too soft and he hits a jumper on you. Too hard and he’s putting your teammate on a poster. Under Mitchell, Bazz wasn’t stuck between deliberate and random. He was just stuck.
Even though the pressure to win wasn’t exactly there this past season, the pressure to show development certainly was. Bazz took a lot of 3-pointers above-the-break, which wasn’t his strong suit at all.
He made it work on a grand total of 29 attempts above-the-break in 2014-15, in which he made 37.9% of them. But as you increased his volume as a shooter above-the-break in 2015-16, the efficiency flat-lined. He made just 16-of-85 (18.8%!!!!) above-the-break this season, which tanked his impressive and encouraging accuracy from the corner 3-point areas (41.7%). It was feast or famine with him and there was too much famine for him to overcome and save his 3-point percentage.
On top of that, Bazz still struggles defensively. He was really bad closing out on spot-up shooters and defending pick-and-roll initiators. He was in the bottom 10 percent of the league on both of those for Synergy Sports, although you should take those stats with a grain of salt because they can be tough to categorize for defensive stats. Even with that grain of salt, he was bad at both. Really bad. He was mostly fine on the ball, but off the ball is where he lost the trust of Mitchell, and understandably so.
That’s where the challenge with maximizing Bazz resides. You can’t take away his automatic nature on the court because it’s what makes him such a special scorer off the bench. You also can’t get by without him understanding and executing the schemes with help defense. Assuming he’s still with the Wolves going into next season (maybe he’s part of a deal for a veteran?), that’s the challenge for Tom Thibodeau. Can you get him to not only understand the defensive responsibilities but also relish in executing them?
Bazz works his ass off. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. But he needs to find the middle ground between his automatic strengths and existing in the schematic game plan. If he does that, he’ll get crazy paid by the Wolves or someone else when he comes on the market. If he doesn’t, he’ll just be that tantalizing enigma we want solved.