In better shape and more mature, Muhammad expects ‘breakout year’
Timberwolves forward Shabazz Muhammad played just 7.8 minutes per game in 37 appearances last year, even though he shot 46 percent from the floor and averaged 23.7 points and 8.8 boards per 48 minutes.
MINNEAPOLIS — Dressed comfortably in a maroon Minnesota golf polo and dress shorts, Richard Pitino stood in the corner of the Timberwolves’ practice gym and soaked in the first session of summer league minicamp Monday.
The young Gophers coach walked away with some tidbits to employ in his second year on the job across the way at Williams Arena. He also left surprised at the vigor exhibited by a kid against whom he’s never coached but about whom he’s heard plenty.
Pitino’s surely familiar with the stories that followed Shabazz Muhammad to the NBA. How he built a reputation as a selfish teammate. How he was suspended by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits during the recruiting process. How he fell apart down the stretch against Minnesota in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. How he got kicked out of last year’s NBA rookie transition program.
"He was just surprised how hard he played, because he played so hard and aggressive," said Flip Saunders, who hosted Pitino on Monday and has been overseeing the Wolves’ summer league workouts. "He goes, ‘You would never expect that. I didn’t realize that’s how he played.’"
That’s the rap that Muhammad, right or wrong, earned in a topsy-turvy year at UCLA. He received only minimal on-court opportunity to shake it last season.
So his sophomore campaign, starting with Las Vegas Summer League play, is about earning more.
"It’s a big one for me," Muhammad said. "I think this should be a breakout year for me."
The glimpses came sporadically last season — a 20-point game at Phoenix here, a stellar NBA Developmental League stint (24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game) there — but the downturns were more readily evident. Former coach Rick Adelman played Muhammad just 7.8 minutes per game in 37 appearances, even though he shot 46 percent from the floor and averaged 23.7 points and 8.8 boards per 48 minutes.
To make matters worse, Muhammad’s father Ron Holmes was sentenced to 37 months in prison and ordered to pay almost $1.7 million restitution after pleading guilty in a Las Vegas mortgage fraud case.
It was also discovered that Holmes took out a loan based on his son’s future potential NBA earnings while Muhammad was still at UCLA, a violation of NCAA rules. The two already had been tied to controversy when Muhammad’s age was falsified and he was suspended for the start of his one collegiate season.
But Muhammad looks back on 2013-14 and says he learned a lot rather than endured a lot.
"Last year was a really good stepping stone for me from the learning aspect of things," Muhammad said. "I thought I played pretty well when I got on the court."
The rotation hasn’t changed; Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and now 2014 draft pick Glenn Robinson III could be in the mix at small forward.
But Muhammad’s confident he merits consideration for increased minutes, too.
"It’s all about just being comfortable this year," he said. "I think it’s my first year I really learned how to play the game and how to play in the NBA."
To prepare for Year 2, Muhammad said he’s been working out three times a day and eating according to a new diet plan. He’s dropped seven or eight pounds, he told Saunders, and is expected to be down to about 205 when training camp begins this fall.
"It’s hard to tell a little bit," Saunders joked, "because he wears his pants and everything so baggy, and he’s got things on his knees. I can never figure out until I see him in street clothes what he’s really like.
"I think (losing weight will) help him, just being able to play harder, longer."
And adjust to Saunders’ demanding practices. With about 45 minutes left in Monday’s session, Saunders said, Muhammad ran out of gas. He cramped up three separate times during two Tuesday workouts, the first of three sets of two-a-days highlighted by Wednesday night’s free, open-to-the-public scrimmage featuring the Wolves’ summer league contingent.
Then comes a Friday flight to Las Vegas, Muhammad’s hometown, and the first of three round-robin games Saturday against Dallas. At last year’s summer league, Muhammad played 20.7 minutes per game in six contests but shot 36.5 percent and averaged 8.5 points and 2.2 rebounds.
Along with fellow 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng, the 21-year-old Muhammad is now a summer league veteran. And, as such, he expects to play and maintain his performance like one.
"It’s a never-ending journey to stay in shape," Muhammad said. "Especially for my body, I feel way better doing it. That’s something I think it’s a good opportunity for having Flip, because he’s one guy who’s gonna get you in shape."