This is the 10th in a 15-part series evaluating each Timberwolves player’s performance during the 2014-15 season. Find the entire series here.
Shabazz Muhammad spent half of his first NBA season on the bench. He spent half of the second on a treadmill.
Inexperience and injury, respectively, have kept the Timberwolves swing man from playing a full NBA season. But during the window in which he was healthy, Muhammad exhibited the makings of a game-changer.
Some nights, he already was one.
"Until he got hurt, Shabazz may have been the most impressive, at that point, of all the players," coach and president of Flip Saunders said.
That’s what happens when a kid whose best rookie stretch came in the D-League starts barnstorming baskets, hitting 3-pointers, playing pesky defense and handing out the occasional assist. Before an oblique strain and then season-ending finger surgery sidelined him for 41 of Minnesota’s final 44 games, Muhammad was one of the NBA’s most improved players.
As a rookie, he’d played in just 37 games for now-retired Rick Adelman.
The Wolves’ sixth man until mid-December, Muhammad averaged 13.5 points on 48.9 percent shooting, including 39.2 from 3-point range. He attacked the rim with aplomb, stepped out and hit 3-pointers with ease and was a fiend in transition.
He scored in double figures in 24 of 38 games and had 20 or more points eight times, including a career-high 30-point night Dec. 30 at Utah.
"He ended up being our best (3-point shooter)," Saunders said. "He’s a guy that shot the 3 very well in college, pretty much, so I think he can be a good 3-point shooter. But I don’t want him to live on that, too. He’s going to have his money in that paint there."
That’s where Muhammad excelled, using a slimmed-down but stronger frame to blow past defenders. His post-up game was his "bread and butter," he said, especially when the 6-foot-6, 225-pound UCLA product played shooting guard and matched up with smaller defenders.
When he and rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins were on the floor together — a result of the Corey Brewer trade that saw Muhammad move to the starting lineup and Wiggins shift to the three — it created significant matchup problems for adversaries.
"That’s a nightmare for defensive teams’ wings to guard," Saunders said, "because one small guy has got to guard Shabazz and get beat up or (he’s) got to guard Wiggins with his athleticism. So what happens is that one of those two guys is always going to have a mismatch."
Muhammad spent several weeks last summer working out in California with "Crazy Frank" Matrisciano, a man they call "Hell’s Trainer" whose unconventional workouts tax both body and mind. In addition to shedding weight, Muhammad says he became a stronger, more aggressive player.
It showed mostly on offense. But it also boosted his rebounding.
"Working out with Frank is a big part, big key in my game, and that’s something I’m going to start doing and do that for a longer amount of periods this time," Muhammad said. "I think I should be able to be better."
Muhammad bumped up his rebounding average from 1.4 per game to 4.1 in 2014-15, a result of more playing time as much as anything else. But Muhammad’s tenacious and stocky enough to be counted upon as a boards presence outside the four and five spots. One key to his development is deciding when to crash them and when to leak out in transition.
Because as of now, Muhammad can be equally adept at both.
No one on the league’s worst defense is going to receive a stellar grade in this category. But Muhammad has gone from a criticized liability to a player with the makings of an at-least serviceable defender.
He guarded his position well enough to stay on the floor. But he rarely showed up in the defensive stat sheet, averaging 0.5 steals and 0.2 blocks per contest.
Muhammad isn’t the easiest player to shoot against, however. Opponents shot just 42.5 percent from the floor when he was guarding them — several points lower than some of his teammates.
Still, the 22-year-old Muhammad — and the rest of the Wolves’ youthful core — has a long way to go when it comes to generating stops. But Muhammad’s got the makeup to make it happen.
It also should be noted Muhammad, who became known as a ball hog in college, dished out 1.8 assists per 36 minutes and averaged less than one turnover per game this past season. Those are two more examples of a player who’s starting to figure out the game’s nuances, even if they aren’t central to his skill set.
But what we don’t know is how Muhammad can handle a full NBA season’s rigors; in two years, he’s played just 75 games.
Wiggins played 82 in half the time.
"When you’re running on the treadmill and playing in the game, it’s two different things," Muhammad said. "I never really thought that (before this season). I picked up a little bit of weight, but when I start working out with Frank, it’s going to be great. I’ll be back to where I was at in about two weeks, I’m guessing."
Muhammad is expected to join Matrisciano out west next month. The Rising Stars Challenge participant will split time between there and Minnesota’s new training facility in Minneapolis before the team reports for training camp this fall.
And when he comes back, Muhammad expects his individual progression to start translating to something bigger.
"It’s all about winning for us next season," Muhammad said. "I’ll be in my third year, and it’s going to be those (2014 first-round picks Wiggins and Zach LaVine’s) second year, so that’s a time where we’ve got to start stepping it up, start winning some games here."