MINNEAPOLIS — Shabazz Muhammad appeared in 37 NBA games during his rookie season, averaging a menial 7.8 minutes per contest.
But when he was on the floor, the swingman from UCLA was productive — albeit a good chunk of his game repetitions came during garbage time. Per 48 minutes, Muhammad averaged 23.7 points and 8.8 boards.
His slashing, at-times frenzied style of play didn’t mesh with cookie-cutter coach Rick Adelman’s preferred methods. Neither did his status as a rookie small forward when compared to the veteran presences of Corey Brewer and Adelman favorite Chase Budinger.
But today, Adelman’s somewhere in Oregon, enjoying retirement and no longer deciding Muhammad’s fate.
"’You’re going to have your chance,’" Muhammad remembers Timberwolves president of basketball operations and newly self-appointed coach Flip Saunders telling him earlier this offseason.
The NBA Draft’s 14th overall pick last summer, Muhammad is one of three Minnesota players under contract Saunders has selected in the draft. That number could grow to four if the Wolves ink second-round pick Glenn Robinson III this summer.
In theory, that gives Saunders more incentive to play them — or at least give them a sustained chance. Muhammad’s closest thing to that came in the NBA Developmental League last year, a short stint in Iowa dictated by Saunders.
But he expects something bigger in Year 2.
"Last year, I thought I played pretty well," said Muhammad, who leads the Wolves’ Las Vegas Summer League team with 15 points per game through two contests. "Some people said I could’ve got more minutes, some people said I shouldn’t. But it’s all about playing hard and being a good teammate and stuff like that, and I think Flip’s going to take care of everything else."
Saunders dealt Minnesota’s No. 9 overall pick in the 2013 draft to land Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng, who made all-rookie second-team honors but didn’t play much himself until the club’s top two centers went down with injuries. A year later, he picked Zach LaVine 13th overall and landed Robinson at 40, though Saunders called him a first-round talent.
From a management standpoint, Saunders has more personally invested in that group than, say, J.J. Barea, for whom former president of basketball operations David Kahn traded in 2011 (and could be sent away in a trade as early as this summer). He saw enough in Muhammad, Dieng and LaVine to spend lottery picks to acquire them.
Now, he’s charged with helping them maximize the potential he saw during the scouting process.
That means giving them a shot without bringing them along too rapidly.
"You have the opportunity to help mold them," Saunders said. "As a coach and as an organization, you feel excited about it, but also a responsibility. Many times with young players, how they develop and the things that are set and the tone early in the career will affect them.
"The main thing you don’t want to do with young players is you don’t want to put them in where they lose confidence."
But to whom much is given, much will be asked, Saunders added.
"I think it’ll help them, because I will probably be more demanding on them as a coach," Saunders said. "I’d be more demanding as I’d ever been."
The same goes for the free agents on Minnesota’s roster that Saunders helped procure. Last year alone, he re-signed Budinger and Nikola Pekovic in free agency, brought in Brewer, Kevin Martin and Ronny Turiaf and traded away former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams in exchange for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
That makes him responsible for obtaining or retaining about 75 percent of the Wolves’ current roster. If Kevin Love is traded any time soon, that number will only increase.
Avoiding undue favoritism toward players he drafted is one of the many balances Saunders must strike in his new dual role. But, as Dieng points out, he and his teammates can make personnel decisions easy or difficult.
"It’s not like in Flip’s hands who’s going to play or not," the big man from Senegal said. "It’s on me right now."