Same name, new frame for slimmer, more athletic Muhammad

Shabazz Muhammad, he and his teammates say, is a different player than he was a year ago. He's slimmer. He's faster. He can jump higher. And he's learning to judge when to attack the basket and when to be more tactful.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Word at the Target Center is Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine aren’t the only new, high-flying youngsters on the Timberwolves roster this season.

Sure, the 2014 first-round draft picks, self-dubbed the "Bounce Brothers," are electrifying enough. But there’s another slender, athletic wing vying for a spot in the show.

This one already has worn a Minnesota uniform. His NBA debut and rookie flashes and failings are behind him.

But Shabazz Muhammad, he and his teammates say, is a different player than he was a year ago.

He’s slimmer. He’s faster. He can jump higher. And he’s learning to judge when to assault the basket and when to be more tactful.

"It’s so crazy," Muhammad said after sitting out a third straight practice Thursday with ankle tendonitis. "I’m still trying to adapt to this body I have, because usually I’m just bulldozing guys."

That was the main tenet of Muhammad’s game last season — in the few moments he was allowed to display it. Rabidly aggressive with no fear of contact, he’d plow his 242-pound frame through the lane and hope for a thunderous finish or his trademark, left-handed runner.

But the new Muhammad weighs just 215, thanks to an offseason conditioning program under crazed, unconventional trainer Frank Matrisciano and continued work since the start of training camp. Muhammad shed the last bit of bulk while wearing a walking boot Tuesday and Wednesday, the result of tendonitis-related swelling in his right Achilles tendon.

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"He continues to work hard," said head coach and president Flip Saunders, who dealt for Muhammad in the first round of last year’s draft, motioning toward the team’s lifting and exercise area. "He was on the bike over there. He was sweating. He’s down another six pounds; he weighs 215. He’s a guy that weighed 242 at one time. He’s a guy that made that commitment."

Neither Muhammad — who is no longer wearing the boot — nor shooting guard Kevin Martin (groin) will play in Friday’s preseason game against Milwaukee in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But both could be ready by Sunday’s clash with Oklahoma City in Tulsa.

If he’s able to play, it’ll be the first of a few more auditions for Muhammad among the Wolves’ new mix.

"He’s going to have 11 days when he comes back to show what he can do," Saunders said.

Muhammad didn’t have much of a chance to do that last year, playing in just 37 games and averaging 7.8 minutes. But he impressed when he was on the floor; his 27.3 points per 48 minutes ranked fifth among NBA rookies.

In Minnesota’s Feb. 25 win at Phoenix, Muhammad went 8-for-13 from the floor for 20 points. But his most memorable work came in the NBA Developmental League, where he averaged 24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in four games.

He weighed 235 then.

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Several of Muhammad’s opportunities came in transition. And he thinks he can do something similar with his lighter, lither frame — especially when he’s on the floor with Wiggins or LaVine under Saunders’ more up-tempo style.

"That’s what (Saunders is) telling me: ‘You’re going to get a lot of chances in transition,’ especially when it’s me and Andrew sometimes out there on the wings," Muhammad said. "It’s going to be hard for them to try to guard both of us in transition, and that’s something that I’ve really been working on."

But Muhammad’s also shown more restraint this preseason, point guard Ricky Rubio said, perhaps stepping back for an open jump shot or cycling the ball through the offense more frequently.

Less freight train. More sports car.

"He used to attack, attack, attack, and now he’s learning how to be patient and attack at the right time," Rubio said. "Sometimes, players like him needs time to learn that."

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