MINNEAPOLIS — Shabazz Muhammad didn’t grow up in Las Vegas dreaming about playing in the NBA Developmental League. No top-ranked high school recruit and college one-and-done does.
But with the Timberwolves rookie playing little more than a specator’s role thus far, he says his upcoming stint with the Iowa Energy is an opportunity, not a demotion.
"I would rather go down and play right now, to be honest with you," the No. 14 overall pick in this past summer’s draft said Saturday. "Me watching is a good thing, too, but it feels like I haven’t played a game in a while, so it’s something I’m excited to do."
Muhammad’s last meaningful action came during the preseason. Since then, he’s appeared in 11 games, averaging 3.8 minutes and 1.1 points per contest.
More polished and reliable in coach Rick Adelman’s eyes, fellow rookie Robbie Hummel is higher up than Muhammad in the small forward pecking order. When Chase Budinger returns from his left-knee surgery rehab, he’ll jump both of them.
There just aren’t many — any, really — minutes available for Muhammad. At least not in Minneapolis at the moment.
A guy whose character was at times questioned coming out of college — and was further scrutinized after he was kicked out of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program this past summer — Muhammad has been understanding and receptive toward his situation thus far, Adelman said.
"It’s still hard when you’re up to the NBA and you’re being sent down some place," Adelman said. "I don’t think it’s an easy situation, but I think just the way he’s handled not playing and everything, he’s been terrific all year long. His attitude and the way he’s approached everything, I think he’s gonna be fine.
"He’s not going to be down there very long, so I think he’ll make the most of the opportunity." Starting Tuesday in Reno, Nev. — the same site Muhammad played in two high school state championships — Muhammad will have a chance to prove it. The plan is for him to join the Energy on Sunday and play in their two games Tuesday and Thursday in Reno.
Muhammad said Flip Saunders will join him in Des Moines when Iowa returns home for a game Jan. 12. In the meantime, Muhammad was told to expect a phone call from the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations every night during the assignment.
Muhammad will rejoin with Summer League and training camp mate Othyus Jeffers, who spent the preseason with Minnesota before being waived. Jeffers currently ranks fourth among D-League scorers with 23.5 points per outing.
Even so, it’s not the ideal scenario Muhammad spent his lifetime of pickup battles, high school tournaments, AAU showcases and a year at UCLA envisioning.
Yet after growing so used to spending games on the floor with the ball in his hands, a paradoxical sense of normalcy is about to settle in.
"It gets me really excited to go out and play and show everybody I can play," Muhammad said. "I’m looking forward to it."
That was before he morphed his 6-foot-10, 260-pound body into the basketball playmaking machine it is now. His face was fuller, his torso was chunkier, and his diet was much less disciplined.
"I did snack a lot," Love said, rubbing his usually-bearded chin he’d shaved for a photo shoot Friday. "This face was a lot chubbier back in the day. So was this body."
Kevin Durant remembers those days.
The Thunder superstar, in town for Saturday’s clash with the Timberwolves, has received an up-close-and-personal account of Love’s development from a high school phenom to fellow NBA MVP candidate. Durant was around for the AAU get-togethers in eighth and ninth grade and the rigorous workouts both men underwent this past summer with trainer Rob McClanaghan.
In between, Durant watched in admiration as Love transformed his physique and his game.
"He put down the snacks," Durant said. "He used to be one of those guys, but you can tell he put in so much work. Just being around him this summer he taught me a lot about myself, and he’s just a pro’s pro. A guy that comes to work every single day, doesn’t say anything. Just goes out there and plays."
Love had similar praise for his fellow former high school all-American.
"I think we’ve both learned a lot from each other as far as work ethic and how we approach the game," Love said. "Obviously, he’s a far different player than I am, but as far as how we show up to the gym every day, get exercise, work exceptionally hard, I think in a lot of ways we see eye-to-eye."
The two Olympic and Western Conference All-Star teammates are close enough they can exchange some barbs, too.
"He couldn’t shoot a lick when I first met him," Durant said of Love, who’s shooting 37.4 percent from 3-point range this year, "and now he’s the best 3-point shooter in the league after Steph Curry."
"That’s a lie," Love playfully shot back at wiry, 6-9, 215-pound Durant. "You think he doesn’t have any weight on him now; he had no weight on him when he was that age."
Could be worse: With the NBA’s recent slew of injuries has come a deepened appreciation for Minnesota’s relative team health at this point in the season.
Not that the Timberwolves needed much of a reminder.
"Touch wood, knock on wood that we continue to stay healthy," said Love, who missed most of last season with a broken hand. "No matter who it is, whether it’s our team or any other team, you never like to see guys go down."
For the second time in three matchups this season, Minnesota caught Oklahoma City without the services of point guard Russell Westbrook on Saturday. He’s out until after the All-Star Break with another knee injury.
One day prior, it was announced that Clippers point guard Chris Paul will miss 3-5 weeks after separating his shoulder. Chicago’s Derrick Rose sat out all of last season and is out again with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Lakers franchise face Kobe Bryant suffered a knee fracture after missing time last year with a torn Achilles. Atlanta’s Al Horford had season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn chest muscle.
It’s all a shame, Love said.
"You just shake your head every time it happens, especially with the caliber of player it’s happened to," Love said. "You never want it to happen to anybody, but some of the top guys are going down. That’s not good for the league."
Minnesota is dealing with ailments of its own, but Budinger (meniscus surgery) and Ronny Turiaf (fractured elbow) are far along in their road to recovery, according to Adelman.
Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who left the Timberwolves’ game Wednesday with a groin injury and didn’t practice Friday, sat out Saturday.
Still, it’s a much better overall status than last season, when Love, Budinger, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko combined to miss 186 games. In 2011-12, Rubio tore his ACL, Love suffered a concussion near the end of the season, and Pekovic had a series of nagging injuries.
"This year, we’ve been fortunate," Adelman said. "But I think everybody’s gonna go through that. You just look at some teams; the Lakers have been destroyed by it. When you lose your star player . . . it makes it difficult."
Said Love: "Especially considering the circumstances of the past two years, it is nice to have a healthy lineup."