LAS VEGAS – Criticized on Draft night, scrutinized at Summer League, Shabazz Muhammad seems to understand that what he’s dealing with these days isn’t the norm for NBA lottery picks. But it the sort of thing that happens in the occasional disappointed league precinct when post-Draft results seem to fall short of pre-Draft expectations.
Even though no one has played a minute that matters.
Two games in, working professionally now in the city where he grew up, Muhammad isn’t so much trying to prove anyone wrong as he is trying to justify – not all at once, but eventually – the Minnesota Timberwolves’ decision to trade for the No. 14 after some Draft night audibilizing. He is aware of and even has talked about the “negativity” surrounding his selection, but he seems to be keeping it off to the side while going about the basics like any new employee learning on the job.
“I just wanted to get comfortable and familiar,” Muhammad said Monday after another challenging early lesson. “I know it’s a tough season, the regular season, and guys will be way better than this. I’m just scouting my game, seeing the stuff I need to work on and make sure I work on it this summer.”
Muhammad, who brought a reputation from UCLA as a black-hole scorer and defensive leaker, has had 15 points in two games, shooting 6-of-16 with just one assist and a cumulative minus-12 in Minnesota’s first two losses. He also got burned at the end of Monday’s two-point loss to Phoenix when his rip-through move turned into a turnover against the Suns’ Marcus Morris with 3.3 seconds left, Muhammad sprawling in vain on the floor. Moments later, that gaffe was followed by Morris’ buzzer-beating jumper to win it.
But Muhammad’s activity level has been high, his defense earnest though spotty, and he has looked as if he’s determined to pass the ball rather than hoist it. That’s not a bad point of emphasis for him, to round out an area absent from his game, though he surely won’t earn his NBA living as a facilitator.
It’s not the best way to find an early comfort zone in this league – playing to disprove negatives – but it is part of what Flip Saunders, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, described as Muhammad’s education in “working within the offense.” Thriving in coach Rick Adelman’s offensive system demands that everyone, rookie gunners included, learns to be a conduit.
Saunders has been explaining the pick of Muhammad almost since the moment Minnesota made it in the POBO’s much-anticipated first Draft. He had a semi-apologetic news conference that night, after preferred scorers Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came off the board immediately before the Wolves’ slot at No. 9 and sent them scrambling for Nos. 14 and 21 in a trade with Utah.
Saunders reminds anyone who asks that their harvest that night was “2-for-1,” turning that ninth pick (Trey Burke) into both Muhammad and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. Had Muhammad and Dieng been reversed in order, the heat on the UCLA kid would be dialed down, if not on Saunders and the Wolves.
But it’s important to keep that heat in perspective. Saunders, staking a return to the playoffs after nine consecutive misses as Minnesota’s primary ambition, tried to do that Monday. “We’re not counting on rookie,” he said, “so we’ll let them develop at their own pace. If they happen to improve enough to play for us, so be it. If they don’t, we’re just going to let that situation develop.”
That’s how Muhammad is approaching things, too. He’s averaging 0.5 assists per game, the stat that will continue to grab attention (he had just 27 in 32 college games, after all). But action at the Thomas & Mack Center isn’t preseason basketball in Fargo and that isn’t the big-time stuff that will rev up by November at Target Center.
The grumbles about his drafting, the questions about his late-game mistake Monday haven’t turned him defensive or pushed him toward any urgency. C’mon, it’s summer league.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Muhammad said. “It’s more like a pick-up game, the feel, the atmosphere is. But a lot of rookies are going through this and I’m obviously one of them.”