Flip Saunders: Shabazz Muhammad ‘very apologetic’

MINNEAPOLIS — Somewhere among the arduous courtship of Nikola Pekovic, the continued tweaking of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ on- and off-court personnel, and his ongoing transition into the NBA front-office universe, Flip Saunders found some time to celebrate his daughter’s wedding.

Then, he got a phone call.

Less than two months after defending Shabazz Muhammad in spite of a marred reputation, Saunders had to explain to his first draft pick as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations that when someone in authority issues instruction, it is meant to be followed and not ignored.

A simple enough notion, yet one that Saunders and Muhammad discussed very seriously last week after the latter was booted out of the league’s Rookie Transition Program.

“We talked about the biggest thing is that when you go into any situation where there’s rules and guidelines set down, you have to abide by those,” Saunders said. “As I explained to him, part of being successful at our level is being disciplined both on the court and off the court.

“He didn’t have much to say. He was very apologetic and felt extremely disappointed in himself.”

Friday, Saunders went so far as tell KFAN 100.3 that Muhammad could be bound for the NBA D-League if he doesn’t shape up.

It wasn’t a threat, he said Monday. Just a very real possibility.

“I’m a CBA guy,” said Saunders, who called Muhammad after learning of his transgression. “I believe in the minor league system. I believe that players that are down there are down there because they … lack the skill to play at our level, they don’t have the confidence or they don’t have the mental frame.”

Newly-acquired shooting guard Kevin Martin, whom Saunders introduced to local media Monday morning at the Target Center, also reached out to Muhammad, the team’s 14th overall pick via a draft-and-trade deal with the Utah Jazz.

After struggling during summer league play in Las Vegas, falsifying his age in college, enduring his father’s smothering involvement his entire career and earning a rap as a selfish teammate, bringing a female guest into his hotel room hours after being told not to doesn’t exactly represent a sterling start to Muhammad’s career.

“The frustrating part … is that following policies, guidelines and rules that are put in place,” Saunders said. “That’s what’s frustrating, because when you go somewhere or do something, you would hope that you’d do what you have to do.”

There will be no extra, team-enforced punishment in addition to the league’s fine and requiring Muhammad to complete the rookie seminar next summer.

Still pecking for Pek: Saunders’ update on the team’s negotiations with one of its most coveted offseason prizes didn’t provide any earth-shattering nuggets. 

He’s still convinced Pekovic will re-sign with the Timberwolves, hopefully by the time training camp starts at the beginning of October.

“(Agent) Jeff (Schwartz) and I have had very good conversations,” said Saunders, who reportedly has flown to New York to visit with Schwartz on at least one occasion. “Nothing’s been adversarial, and there’s things that we’ve agreed upon, there’s things we’ve agreed to disagree upon. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

Because of the sides’ lengthy discussions over what’s reportedly a four-year, $10 million-$12 million offer from the team that drafted him in 2008, Pekovic has opted not to play for Montenegro in next months’ EuroBasket championship and risk an injury without his signature on a contract.

He remains in his home country while Schwartz and Saunders hash out the particulars of a deal that at the moment represents his best viable option for next season and beyond.

Since entering restricted free agency July 1, Pekovic still hasn’t received any outside offer sheets. Presently, his only other choice is to take the Timberwolves’ $6 million qualifying offer for next year, then enter the unrestricted free-agent market next summer.

Saunders doubts Pekovic’s camp would take such a flier, though, and remains confident he’ll have Minnesota’s leading scorer from a year ago back for the long term.

He declined, however, to offer a timetable for when the deal could come to fruition.

“You don’t want to be walking around without a contract,” Saunders said. “That’s like having a powerball in your pocket. You don’t want to throw the jeans in the washer and then you don’t have it anymore.”

Three to see: The Timberwolves are eyeing a training camp opening date of Tuesday, Oct. 1, Saunders said.

Since summer league concluded, Minnesota has extended invites to second-round draft picks Robbie Hummel (2012) and Lorenzo Brown (2013) and unrestricted free agent Othyus Jeffers, who had a very impressive showing in Las Vegas last month.

All three plan to attend.

“We don’t know if there’s anybody any better that would fill the role that we want,” Saunders said of the trio.

That doesn’t guarantee a three-way tussle for the team’s currently open 15th and final roster spot, though. Saunders favors leaving an intentional hole to make room for in-season signings, especially in the case of a dismissal or an injury.

Saunders also denied Seth Curry’s claim that he’d received a training camp invitation.

The undrafted rookie free agent out of Duke told the Roanoke (Va.) Times the Timberwolves were one of four teams to seek his participation.

“That’s a surprise to me,” Saunders said. “I’ve had no conversations.”

And what about the uniting of Mindy Saunders to Wayzata High School grad Ryan Vint, a former Mr. Soccer Minnesota award winner and star at the University of Wisconsin?

“It went good,” Flip grinned. “No one got hurt.”

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