Shabazz Muhammad must adjust to bench role

This is the sixth in a 17-part series profiling each player on the Timberwolves’ roster leading up to training camp.

If not for that one night.

Rather than spend his first few months of NBA life painting himself in a better public light, Shabazz Muhammad perpetuated the notion he’s a potential troublemaker when NBA rookie program officials sent him home for violating a rule and entertaining a female guest in his room. If not for that blemish on Muhammad’s record, the focus could’ve shifted some to the flashes he displayed during summer league play and the Timberwolves’ plans for their No. 14 overall draft pick out of UCLA.

Instead, Muhammad’s reputation as a selfish player, his falsified age and the heavy involvement of his father in handcrafting his son’s basketball career are the main topics surrounding perhaps the most polarizing rookie in the 2013 class.

Minnesota president of basketball operations Flip Saunders liked Muhammad’s nose for scoring and athleticism enough to strike a deal for him, even when it didn’t fill a primary immediate need.

But before he can use that to the Timberwolves’ advantage, Muhammad must prove he can remain on the straight and narrow.

2012-13 stats: 17.9 PPG, 44.3 FG PCT, 37.7 3-pt PCT

2013 salary: $1,887,120

Last year: With the ball in his hands, Muhammad couldn’t have done much more to live up to the hype surrounding him since middle school. The nation’s No. 1 2012 prep prospect according to most recruiting services earned second-team all-America honors from Sporting News and carried UCLA, singlehandedly at times, to the Pac-12 regular-season title and an NCAA tournament berth.

Muhammad’s attack methods were simple: slash toward the rim, pull up for a shot the moment an opportunity arises — 3-pointers, jumpers, floaters, doesn’t matter.

He averaged 0.8 assist per game, drawing concern from some observers, but that’s because he was asked to be the Bruins’ No. 1 scorer, coach Ben Howland said. If Muhammad was delegating, he wasn’t doing the job he’d been assigned.

But showing aggressive hunger to score points wasn’t the only rap Muhammad earned during his one year of college basketball.

Many thought he carried himself with an air of selfishness.

The most glaring example came Thursday, Feb. 7, in a conference game against Washington. UCLA guard Larry Drew passed up an opportunity to dish to Muhammad, instead knocking down a game-winning jump shot. Rather than join his teammates in congratulating Drew, Muhammad appeared to saunter off the court upset he didn’t get the final look.

It was also found Muhammad played at least part of his amateur career using a falsified age — one of many calculated actions by his father, Ron Holmes, to breed his son into a basketball thoroughbred. The former USC guard marketed his son to anyone who would listen, pushed him hard in the gym, created AAU teams that were ensured to showcase his talent, and took every other possible step to catapult Muhammad into the NBA, right down to choosing UCLA.

The strategy worked, as Muhammad dominated the AAU circuit, became a national star at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and had his pick of virtually every major-college program. They chose UCLA because of its presence in the California market and lack of depth on the roster — a near-guarantee Muhammad would be “the guy” in Westwood.

Things will be quite different in his new home.

This year: While he’s one of its more impressive athletic specimens — 6-foot-5, 222 pounds with a 6-11 wingspan — Muhammad is par for the 2013 draft class course when it comes to NBA readiness: might soak up some minutes here or there, but at least a year away from contributing regularly.

That’s especially true for Muhammad, who projects best as a small forward but could see some time at the two-guard spot. The Timberwolves became much deeper on the wing this offseason, re-signing Chase Budinger and adding free agents Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer.

Muhammad proved he can score, but not at an efficient enough rate to immediately merit time before any of those three. He shot just 46.3 percent on 2-pointers and could use some work on getting all the way to the rim.

He needs to defend better, too. He created about as many turnovers (0.7 steal per game) as he did scoring opportunities for teammates last season.

Muhammad was good but not spectacular at the NBA Summer League in his hometown of Las Vegas. He averaged 8.5 points per game but missed a good deal of shot attempts, shooting 36.5 percent from the floor.

His best outing came in a win against Sacramento, when Muhammad went 3-for-4 from 3 and scored 17 points.

He and fellow rookie draft picks Gorgui Dieng and Lorenzo Brown will be around for training camp. The trio has been working out in Minneapolis with newly-hired player development coach Bobby Jackson, and the former University of Minnesota and Sacramento Kings star has liked what he’s seen.

But just as important as impressing his coaches is proving, once and for all, that Muhammad can do good things for the Timberwolves while keeping his nose out of trouble. Do that while continuing to develop his game, and he just might have a role on this team by the end of the year.

If not, he’ll have to deal with sitting and watching basketball games rather than taking them over. Saunders also discussed the NBA D-League as an option, though with $1.9 million committed to Muhammad this year, it’d be surprising if Minnesota didn’t at least give him a chance to find some kind of NBA niche.

From the front office: “I know it’s not a popular pick with Shabazz, and I’ve been very critical of him. I told him that when he came in here. … We’ve watched a lot of games, and talking to him, talking to a lot of people, we were comfortable with him, because I do believe this: you look at history of players that have been player of the year in high school, all those guys have come in and been pretty good players in the NBA. You can look back through the past 25 years.” — Saunders the night of the NBA Draft

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