MINNEAPOLIS — Halfway through his first interaction with Twin Cities media since he was sent to the NBA Developmental League, a Timberwolves public relations representative handed Shabazz Muhammad a towel.
"Wipe your face," the sweat-soaked rookie was told.
Muhammad swept the perspiration away quickly, cracking a boyish grin congruent with his age of 21 years. Then he continued to beam toward reporters while discussing what a week of basketball — actually playing basketball — has done for him.
Whether it’s in the D-League or practice, which Muhammad and Minnesota had just completed early Monday afternoon, the first-round draft pick’s engine is almost always in high gear.
"What you really like about him," coach Rick Adelman said, "is that he’s not afraid."
There sure wasn’t any fear present during Muhammad’s four-game D-League stint, which came to a conclusion Sunday in Des Moines, Iowa. In four games with the Iowa Energy, the No. 14 selection in last summer’s draft averaged 24.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game before being recalled Monday morning.
Muhammad attacked the rim, ran the floor, took good shots and, at times, dictated the flow of the Energy’s offense. Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders — the guy responsible for drafting the small forward out of UCLA and assigning him Sunday, Jan. 5 — took in Muhammad’s final D-League game Sunday, a 26-point effort in a win against Rio Grande Valley.
Afterward, Saunders told Muhammad his time had been served.
"I thought he did a lot of good things," Saunders said. "Whether it translates right now, we don’t know, because he’s in a situation where we have a lot of people who are in his position. I think he proved that, no question, he’s going to be a player in this league."
It hasn’t translated at all in Muhammad’s first NBA go-round; not with Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger all far ahead of him in Adelman’s wing rotation.
Muhammad, though, says he isn’t fazed. Especially after renewing that familiar of feeling of taking over a basketball game the former No. 1 prep recruit became used to in high school and one year of college.
"I definitely feel I’m an NBA player," Muhammad said. "But it’s all about getting an opportunity in this league. Once I get my opportunity, I’m really going to take advantage of it, I think, and I think I’ll really be able to help my team out with things like transition and getting rebounds and my athletic ability.
Yet the gap between D-League dominance and NBA contributions, at least in Muhammad’s case, is expansive.
Muhammad was assigned to Iowa in the first place because Adelman hasn’t been able to justify rotating him in during significant junctures. He’s appeared in only 11 games and hasn’t played more than 9 minutes, 39 seconds in any singular contest.
Brewer is the locked-in starter at his position, Budinger recently returned from a knee injury and is likely to see ample minutes, and Martin and Shved — in that order — are entrenched in the shooting-guard pecking order (the two position is virtually the same as the three in Adelman’s system).
Even fellow rookie Robbie Hummel is ahead of Muhammad at the moment. In the two games Martin has missed, Brewer slid into the shooting guard spot, and Hummel started at small forward (Budinger was still out then).
"We have 15 guys," Adelman said. "Only so many guys can play. In this league though, things can happen very quickly, and you’ve got to be ready all the time."
The Timberwolves know that as well as any professional sports franchise, having been ravaged by injuries last season.
But, barring another rash of ailments, Muhammad’s on-ball defense needs to get better in order for him to receive a shot, Saunders said.
The past eight days were good for him, though. Practicing against Brewer, Martin and Kevin Love has been advantageous, but there is no substitute for significant game minutes, according to Saunders.
"You’ve got to get into an arena where there’s the popcorn smell, people in the stands and there’s dance line girls and there’s everything all over, atmosphere," said Saunders, who added that rookie center Gorgui Dieng will likely be the team’s the next player sent to the D-League. "No matter what, there’s no substitute for the atmosphere of a game, so you do need to get that."
And per Adelman, Muhammad came back with a boost of confidence go with the relentlessness he’s exhibited since the start of training camp. During a scrimmage Monday, he attacked the offensive glass with vigor and wound up with a handful of offensive rebounds.
If generating a little more bounce in Muhammad’s step was the goal of his short assignment, it appears to have been realized.
"It felt a little bit like college and high school," Muhammad said. "I mean, it was a good thing. It gave me a lot of confidence coming into practice today. And I believe I can really help this team out if just get the opportunity. But, like I said, whatever the coaches do, I’m going to respect, and I’m going to wait my turn."