Upon rolling into Las Vegas with the rest of Minnesota’ s NBA Summer League team, Shabazz Muhammad noticed a familiar face grinning at him from a billboard.
It was the Timberwolves’ top 2013 draft pick himself, greeting citizens of his hometown alongside fellow Vegas prep product Anthony Bennett. In this moment, the prominence he grew used to during four dominant years of high school and one season of collegiate basketball lingered.
The next day, the NBA Draft’s No. 14 overall selection missed four of seven field goals and scored seven points in his professional debut.
Goodbye, former life.
Muhammad’s been through basketball-based transitions before: his first year of varsity hoops, his brief experiment with college life. But not until earlier this month at summer league did he undergo such an extreme shift.
In a few short weeks, Muhammad has gone from the guy to a guy.
“He’s struggling, because for the first time in his career, he’s trying to play within a system where he’s not the main focus in the system,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said in an NBA TV interview during Minnesota’s final summer league game. “Our main focus when we brought him out here, I didn’t want him to take 25 shots a game. I wanted him to be in a situation knowing that when he plays with our main guys, he’s going to be a guy that’s not gonna get a lot of opportunities, so he’s got to play off the ball. He’s got to play a team-type concept.”
That’s the polar opposite of what Muhammad’s been asked to do his entire basketball career. When his father Ron Holmes directed AAU teams, he made his son the sole focal point. UCLA coach Ben Howland didn’t operate much differently, asking his top-rated recruit to serve as the Bruins’ primary offensive weapon.
Then Muhammad returned home in mid-July and stepped into games with nearly 25 other players on the exact same trajectory as him. They may not all have possessed as much raw talent, but each was scrapping in hopes of carving out a spot in a rotation, just like Muhammad. Many of them, including teammates Chris Johnson and Solomon Jones, already know what stepping on an NBA court feels like.
Muhammad’s 8.5 points per game, 36.5 shooting percentage and general lack of summer league pop, then, aren’t nearly as illustrative as the esoteric initiation he’s gained since signing with Minnesota.
“Just getting more of a grasp for what’s what,” said assistant David Adelman, who coached the summer league team for the second straight year. “Where to be and not to mess up spacing and little things that maybe in the past, he didn’t have to worry about. Just another little step of growth.”
While maintaining confidence in his abilities as a scorer — he did average 17.9 points per game at UCLA — Muhammad has focused on taking those baby steps. His message to reporters since settling in at summer league camp has been an emphasis on his defense and passing, both areas he feels he improved upon during his team’s 3-3 showing out in the desert.
“Those are the two things this team really wants me to do,” Muhammad said.
During his first NBA season, at least, minutes and scoring chances will be few and far between, especially with veterans Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer all manning the wing. Embracing his assignment to mature behind them sets him up to better endure the rigors of training camp in September.
Comfort within a role allows an athlete to stay oriented on the present task rather than concern himself with gaining time in the spotlight.
“In training camp, it’s taken to an accelerated level,” Adelman said. “If he’s improving, that’s all I care about.”
What needs improvement is Muhammad’s on-ball defense, part of which can only come with time as he adds muscle and agility that allow him to match up with elite-level wing athletes. He’ll keep working on his 3-point shot, too, and adjusting to the NBA arc.
“I really been practicing on it,” said Muhammad, who shot 37.7 percent from 3 in college and 38.9 at summer league. “I think the strength is maturing and coming along as a player. The first time I started shooting the NBA 3, I was like ‘this is really far back.’ Now, I’m shooting and I think it’s the college 3 again.”
The challenge of moving from all-everything superstar to lower-tier option is not exclusive to Muhammad. Most NBA rookies today take years to return to central focal point status. Some never do.
But for a player whose career so far has centered completely on the idea of self, both in how coaches have asked him to play and, at times, how he’s acted toward teammates, the idea of fading into the background is even more foreign.
So far, so good, one fellow rookie draft pick said.
“Him just being a cool guy, man,” fellow rookie draft pick Lorenzo Brown told Timberwolves.com when asked what surprised him most about Muhammad. “You would think because of the status he has, he would be kind of, like, conceited, but no, he’s definitely not like that.”
Another tiny step on the path to fulfilling first-year expectations in the Twin Cities.