MINNEAPOLIS — Spend a few moments engaging with or observing Shabazz Muhammad, and it’s clear his basketball existence has morphed into one giant, desperate attempt to impress.
He’s a bit more polished than the scrutiny-weary rookie the Timberwolves snagged 14th overall in this past summer’s draft. The 6-foot-6 small forward’s balancing confidence with humility — “I’m getting better as a player,” “you have to build your way up” — in his interactions with the media.
And he hasn’t played the game so much as he’s attacked it through two weeks of training camp.
Even tough-to-please coach Rick Adelman acknowledges the motor with which his raw but athletic project wing performs.
“He plays hard,” the head man said. “He competes, which is a good step.”
Expecting to play a minimal role for the first time in his career, Muhammad has taken to centering his gaze on some finer, less-rewarding tasks he wasn’t exactly known for during his one year of college. Almost everyone cued into preseason practice notes his offensive rebounding, and he hasn’t had a choice but to focus on defense while matching up with veterans Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer during scrimmages.
He knew coming in that life in Minnesota would be drastically different than anything he experienced growing up in Las Vegas — and that goes far beyond the winter weather up here.
Since his father began forming AAU teams around him, Muhammad has been the focal point of every team he’s graced with his slashing skills and well-formulated jump shot — until now.
“Being a rookie, I mean, you don’t expect to be ‘the’ guy anyway on the NBA level,” said Muhammad, who scored 17.9 points per game for UCLA last year. “Being a rookie, and guys are already coming in with max contracts and stuff like that, so you have to build your way up in all things.”
There’s a lot of building needed for Muhammad after a high school and college career littered with controversy. It carried over into his offseason when he was kicked out of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program.
He’s well behind Martin, Brewer and a healthy Chase Budinger in the Timberwolves’ perimeter rotation, too.
So Muhammad’s done his best to keep his head down and show off an aggressive approach, not unlike one of his stampeding drives to the rim.
“It comes down to your effort,” Muhammad said, “and that’s one thing I try to do is give it all on the court. That’s something I have to really do to get the minutes I want to get this year.”
His only substantial game appearance to date helped his cause.
In Minnesota’s victory against Milwaukee last week in Sioux Falls, S.D., Muhammad played 20 minutes, 52 seconds and scored 11 points on 50 percent field-goal shooting. He vindicated the tales of his offensive rebounding prowess, pulling down three of them.
But he’s more in line for spot duty this season. That hasn’t gone as well.
In his first NBA action, the exhibition opener against CSKA Moscow, Muhammad picked up three personal fouls in six minutes. He didn’t play at Toronto last week and saw the floor for just 3:45 this past Saturday.
His contract’s guaranteed, so Adelman has bigger decisions to make than where and when to play Muhammad at the moment.
But he has paid him plenty of mind.
“He’s got to learn how he can be effective in the game when he gets in the game or in scrimmages and everything else,” Adelman said. “Not everybody’s gonna be somebody that’s a perfect player, and you’ve got to find out what your strengths, how you can be effective, and go about doing that, especially for a young guy.”
Muhammad said he’s adapted Adelman’s corner offense well, calling it “intuitive.” Defending at this level, he says, is just about sheer guts and want-to.
“I think I’m playing really aggressive with the offensive and defensive ends, especially on the glass, and really playing hard defense,” said Muhammad, who has spent time at both shooting guard and small forward. “I think I’m putting myself in a position to get some playing time.”
Whatever run he does glean will likely be limited. Martin and Brewer are locks on the wing, Derrick Williams has been playing a lot of three, and the Timberwolves expect Chase Budinger (meniscus removal surgery) back at some point.
No griping from Muhammad.
“You’re at the bottom of the totem pole as a rookie,” he said, “and you work your way up.”
That includes some good-natured hazing. Carrying forth a years-long tradition, the veterans gave him a pink Jonas Brothers backpack to tote to and from practice.
“I’m good with it,” Muhammad said with a chuckle.
When told point guard Ricky Rubio carted a similar piece of luggage bearing the face of Justin Bieber two years ago, though, Muhammad changed his mind.
“He’s lucky,” he cracked. “Bieber’s better than the ones we got.”
All part of the transition process for a 20-year-old whose ceiling has yet to be discerned.
“It’s gonna take a little bit of time, like myself my rookie year, to get adjusted to the speed and things like that,” said Williams, whom Minnesota drafted second overall in 2011. “But he’s coming along good.”