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Room for Improvement: Shabazz Muhammad

Taken with the 14th and final lottery pick of the 2013 Draft, Shabazz Muhammad rarely got off the bench during his rookie year. What could he do to change that?

Shabazz Muhammad’s career is veering dangerously close to the kind of arc that a villain in a PG-rated sports movie would follow.

Once a high school prospect of astounding value, the sheen on Muhammad’s abilities wore off awful quick when it was revealed that he was a full year older than his claimed age. Instead of being taken with a top-3 overall pick, the slot where he was long projected to go, Muhammad not only went 14th overall in a notoriously weak class, but he was traded on draft night from one snowy, small-market climate to another, getting dealt from Salt Lake City to Minnesota. Like a difficult kid getting sent home from summer camp, Muhammad couldn’t obey the rules during last the rookie transition program last August. That’s a look that may have been in vogue in the early 2000s, but today’s successful young draftees are all focused, diligent, and give little for their coaches to worry about during nights on the road.

In 2013-14, Muhammad only played 7.8 minutes per game over just 37 games, with the vast majority of missed games being healthy scratches. It’s a lot less playing time than the Timberwolves’ other first-round pick, Gorgui Dieng — picked 21st overall — received: 13.6 minutes per game over 60 games, including over 30 minutes per game and starts in all of Minnesota’s April contests. Muhammad even got less playing time than rookie Robbie Hummel (12.4 minutes per game, 53 games), who was Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2012.

As a 6-6 guard, Muhammad is an excellent option on the low post, where he usually provides a size mismatch against the usually-smaller guard who must defend him. As a left-handed shooter, Muhammad thrives best on the left block, where he will rely on a little hook/push shot that, while not highlight reel fodder, is a deceptively difficult two points to prevent:

Muhammad runs into problems if he tries to create offensively in any other context than this. His long-distance shooting is not a serious threat, and his attempts to drive usually end with him well short of the basket. Muhammad will resort to attempts to replicate that same left-handed floating shot while in motion, which usually results in a fairly low-percentage look:

Defensively, any size advantage that Muhammad has is, for all purposes, lost whenever he takes a long, looping route under a screen in a not-quite full-spirited attempt to keep up with his man. In the play below, Muhammad’s assignment is Wesley Matthews, who receives the ball from Nicolas Batum after running off a Thomas Robinson screen on the left post. By wandering a fair distance away from the cutting Matthews, Muhammad runs right into the Robinson screen. Now a step behind the play, Matthews is able to easily deke Muhammad into a shooting foul:

In the middle of the season, Muhammad was assigned to the NBDL’s Iowa Energy for a four-game stretch. Muhammad’s term against fringe prospects went resoundingly well:

Muhammad scored 24.5 points per game on 57.1 percent shooting for the Energy, grabbing 9.8 rebounds per game as well. That is: he comfortably dominated the competition. In the 2013-14 season, Muhammad was in a rare and uncomfortable limbo — too great to spend very much time traveling around the NBDL, not versatile enough to see consistent NBA playing time. If Shabazz’s season goes in a more positive direction in 2014-15, it will likely be because he has diversified his offense and sharpened the focus on his defensive game.

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