Shabazz Muhammad’s rep not an issue for Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS — Timberwolves diehards packed the Target Center’s Skyway-level concourse to standing-room-only extremes Friday afternoon, yearning for a first glance at two of Minnesota’s newest acquisitions.
Yet only a subdued, awkwardly-rapid round of applause graced Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Deng’s entrance, followed by a sharp silence as the two 2013 first-round draft picks were formally introduced.
The unrest is back.
It’s the unrest that comes with years of draft blunders and the league’s longest playoff drought. It’s the unrest that accompanies landing an overall talent that has perceived attitude problems while missing out on a primary positional need. It’s the unrest that comes from a success-starved sporting community that’s long been as cynical as it is passionate.
Muhammad knows it. Flip Saunders knows it.
This didn’t go as planned. A bona-fide shooting guard was supposed to be sitting in that middle chair Friday smiling and answering reporters’ questions, not a small forward with a rocky recent history and a reputation for self-centeredness.
Any Twitter search or review of online fan polls confirms it: this was not a popular pick in Minneapolis.
But, Saunders said after Friday’s introductory gathering, “That’s what always happens. … Some people maybe like it, some people don’t.
“I’m excited about it.”
The first-year president of basketball operations is amped he landed a guy in Muhammad who’s prolific enough to score points in the NBA this season and a shot-blocking center in Dieng to shore up the Timberwolves’ interior defense.
Yet even Saunders admitted Thursday that trading down and missing out on a two-guard — a spot where the Timberwolves are almost completely lacking — wasn’t the most desirable outcome.
In the eyes of many aficionados, neither was a small forward who averaged less than one assist per game in one year at UCLA, slouched in frustration when his teammate hit a game-winning shot he thought was meant for him, looked listless in a NCAA tournament first-round loss to the University of Minnesota and had to tell his father to take several steps away from his son’s basketball career.
So instead of a celebration of hope for the immediate future, Friday served as more of the latest stop on Muhammad’s altered-perception campaign .
He’s well aware it didn’t end when the Timberwolves — technically the Jazz, in a draft-and-trade deal — took him with the 14th pick Thursday.
“I love changing people’s opinions,” said Muhammad, who scored 17.9 points per game, the second-most among UCLA freshmen all-time. “If I’m staying in the gym and working and we’re winning games, that’s how you please the fans.”
Aside from his off-the-court issues, there’s concern Muhammad’s shoot-at-all-costs mentality won’t mesh with coach Rick Adelman’s share-the-ball system.
But former UCLA coach Ben Howland takes full responsibility for that perceived greediness.
“He was a guy we wanted to take the most shots,” said Howland, who was fired after the season. “That was his job. That was his role.
Howland spent about 10 minutes on a conference call with reporters Friday, gushing over the former No. 1 high school recruit. It was his endorsement that helped sell Saunders on Muhammad, who worked out in Minnesota on June 16.
“There was so much scrutiny around him,” Howland said of Muhammad. “I assured (general managers) that this kid’s a great kid — not a good kid, a great kid. There’s never going to be issues off the floor.”
A bold statement concerning an athlete who accepted NCAA-illegal travel expenses during recruiting visits and allegedly had his age falsified.
But Muhammad’s father, Ron Holmes, was implicated in both instances. The financier of the impermissible benefits was a friend of the family, and it was Holmes who allegedly helped Muhammad play college hoops under a falsified age.
About a month ago, Muhammad sat down with his father and told him essentially to back off; leave behind his longtime role of personal coach and adviser and just be Dad.
“There were some slipups with him; we definitely talked about that,” Muhammad said. “It was difficult. Growing up, since I was a kid, he was always in the gym with me. And now he’s not in the gym with me and stuff like that, it’s difficult.
“I said, ‘I’m just more mature as a player, being in the NBA,’ and now he can just take a sideline back. He’s good with it. And now we look at it, and it’s been working out really well for me.”
It’d be hard for Holmes to get too involved at the moment. He’s currently under house arrest until his Aug. 6 trial on charges he ran a mortgage scam.
Playing for a hard-line, no-bull coach like Adelman under the leadership of fellow former Bruin Kevin Love and point guard Ricky Rubio provides an added safety net against any potential problems with Muhammad, Saunders said.
“Coach Adelman’s a teacher. … What better place to play than with someone who’s teaching you?” Saunders said. “No rookie’s going to come into any veteran locker room and have any type of influence in that locker room, especially in a locker room where you have Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Those are our two leaders.  With the other people we have, that’s not going to be an issue.”
Acquired using the Jazz’s second first-round pick (21st overall), Dieng comes from a much less polarizing background. The wiry, 6-foot-11 Senegal native led Louisville in shot-blocking on the way to the NCAA championship and carries himself with a quiet, respectful demeanor.
While Muhammad’s more of a talent-based selection, Saunders drafted Dieng for one reason: Minnesota needed a rim protector.
No problem, Dieng said.
“When I step on the court, I just got a job,” said Dieng, a three-year collegiate player whose name means “Old One” in his native language, Wolof. “I will do whatever it takes to make my team look good. I will try and get the job done.”
But a motivated reserve center, while important, isn’t the home run acquisition people around here covet, either.
The draft’s results render a perimeter-potent shooting guard a must in free agency, which begins at midnight Sunday night. So, too, is re-signing restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic.
Take care of those needs, and the unrest can die back down.
NOTES: Muhammad will wear the number 0, while Dieng sported a No. 5 jersey Friday. Muhammad said he’d wanted the number he wore in college, 15, but that already belongs to forward Mickael Gelabale. … Muhammad, Dieng and second-round pick Lorenzo Brown all will play for the Timberwolves’ NBA Summer League team next month. … Saunders had no update on the status of forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has until Saturday to exercise the $10.2 million player option on his contract.

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