The way forward for Shabazz Muhammad

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We chart a path for a rookie who has a lot to prove in the NBA

Well...

CJ McCollum and Trey Burke are both out with broken bones. So...at least the guy we settled on is healthy....?

I'm under no illusion that Shabazz Muhammad is destined for greatness. I think he thinks it, and certainly his dad thinks it (or wants to believe it's true). Which isn't the worst thing...you can't be the best if you don't start off believing it's possible in the first place.

But of course, the reality is Bazz isn't starting from a place of advantage like a Kobe or Wade LeBron or Durant. He doesn't have any of their sheer athleticism, and while certainly none of them were ready to be stars coming into the league, they had all shown potential and flashes of the skills that have made them the best in the game and unique today; Muhammad hasn't really shown glimpses of any one outstanding ability that he can ride to success at the NBA level, and has displayed several red flags...most notably, a near-complete lack of playmaking.

So this isn't to say Muhammad is a good player. Or even that he's going to be. Just that, if he is, this is the way he'll probably have to do it.

Budinger's injury sucks, but the truth is, in the grand scheme of things, it's not sinking the ship. I think our reaction to it is more of a 'here we go again' thing, having spent what...the last 9 years burning in the fire of a team that was so bad it seemed, at times, to actively hate its fans.

Get on fans, it's a fun ride. Promise%%%

But here's the thing. Love, Martin, Rubio, Pekovic. Those four are where the vast majority of this team's positive production is going to come from.

PER PTS/P WP WS/48
Kevin Love* 25.4 4.0 10.1 .223
Nikola Pekovic 20.2 1.6 6.1 .163
Kevin Martin 16.0 1.0 5.9 .157
Ricky Rubio 16.2 1.2 4.2 .085

*Numbers taken from the 2011-2012 season

Unsurprisingly, the Clippers and Spurs blast us out of the water, and the Thunder still hold a markable edge, depending on how you view Serge Ibaka. But the truth is those four stack up pretty well against the core contributors of the rest of the West's "4-8" seeds.

PER PTS/P WP WS/48
Marc Gasol 19.5 2.4 10.2 .197
Mike Conley 18.3 3.0 11.2 .172
Zach Randolph 17.9 1.9 8.8 .145
Tony Allen 13.2 2.2 7.4 .115

PER PTS/P WP WS/48
James Harden 23.0 3.7 13.5 .206
Dwight Howard 19.3 2.0 9.3 .134
Chandler Parsons 15.3 1.8 9.0 .121
Jeremy Lin 14.9 0.3 5.0 .099

PER PTS/P WP WS/48
Stephen Curry 21.3 2.6 11.4 .180
David Lee 19.2 1.8 9.4 .150
Andre Iguodala 15.2 1.6 8.8 .097
Klay Thompson 12.7 1.9 2.4 .070

And it's kind of just at that level the rest of the way. Nuggets, Mavericks, Blazers, Lakers....no one else out west is any more of a powerhouse than the Warriors.

The ideal way to build a great team is spend big on those two or three super awesome guys, and fill out the rest of the roster with players who give you the best play for the least amount of money. This is the formula both of last year's finalists use...LeBron, Wade, Bosh, with bargain play from Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Birdman (and potentially Oden this year). Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, with Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. And no, the Wolves don't necessarily have that...Love-Martin-Pek isn't Duncan-Parker-Manu, and our filler players are more expensive and less productive. But again, the filler guys aren't what propel the team. And our propulsion isn't outclassed by anyone in our conference flying economy.

So the reality is the small forward spot doesn't need to be a great strength of ours. It just needs to not be a huge liability. Which granted, there's a debate to be had even there considering our options are the erratic Brewer and out-of-position Williams. But no, I don't at all believe that missing Budinger means missing the playoffs. If we are lottery-bound again, it will be because one of our big four performs way under expectations, or everyone else's performs way over it.

Now, about Muhammad...

Bazz has two things he's genuinely good at: he crashes the glass and gets to the free throw line. Even with everything that he wasn't good at in summer league and preseason, those two things he was able to do. And as those are two things that generally almost always translate to the NBA level, that puts him probably a step ahead...for whatever it's worth...of Jonny and Wes. Jonny's path depended entirely on his decision making....shot selection and assists...which he was never able to get. Wes is a poster boy for how not getting to the FT kills your career at the NBA level.

So rebounding and free throws. Shabazz can do these things, and even if that's all he ever does, he should be able to make a decent bench career in the NBA as a poor man's Corey Maggette type of player.

To be more than that, he's what Bazz can focus on:

Work ethic:

All the best players have killer work ethics. That's just the way it is. At the professional level...in any sport...nothing gets handed to you. If you want it, you go and get it.

Kevin Love's proof of work ethic is a fantastic example to use because it's so obvious: both his body and game have gotten remarkably better year after year. Rookie season, he's maybe a little overweight and mainly a hustle player/rebounder who shows flashes of a post game and good shooting touch. Sophomore season he comes in with an actual post game and shooting touch. Third season, his shooting touch has turned into a killer three point touch. Fourth season he shoulders the offense. This year, he comes to camp with a lean, chiseled look that Shaq likes to call the 'salad eater's body'. Every season he pretty drastically adds something new and better to his game.

And this is course for all the best players. Ex: John Stockton averaged 16% from three his first three season; his last three, he averaged 41%. Kobe developed his jump shot to coexist with Shaq, then added a phenomenal post game after Diesel left for Miami.  It wasn't long ago that we were getting on LeBron for having no jump shot or post game. Now he's shooting 40% from three and is one of the best PPP guys in the paint in league history.

This is why I get on DeMarcus Cousins all the time. He's huge. He's mobile. He's skilled. Yet he still doesn't shoot over 50% from the floor. He still doesn't rebound in double figures and still doesn't average a full block a game. Nate's right: given his combination of size, reach, athleticism, and talent, the guy should be debated as the league's best center right now. But Nate's also wrong, because Cousins just lacks the work ethic to get there. He shows up every year the same as the last...nothing improves in his game.

After the season ended, the Indiana media asked Paul George what got him to the level he's at, and his response was purely about work ethic:

"I knew I needed to change the way I prepare for games. You hear about the guys who are great in this league and their work ethic. I felt I was doing the job an average player would do ... but I want to be elite at this game. Whatever it takes, I was up to do it."

"I wasn't prepared to step into this role of being the main guy, so I didn't train to be the main guy, but I know what it takes and I know how I need to train to get to that level."

That's the attitude Bazz needs to have. I'm going to work as hard as KG works. I'm going to work as hard as Durant works, and Ray Allen works, and Kevin Love works. I'm going to figure out what I need to do to be the best I can be, and do that. And yes, part of that is something that only experience can teach. But you have to be willing to go there.

Everyone says Muhammad has a great work ethic. But the proof is in the game, not in the sound bite.

Strength/weight:

I feel like it's pretty obvious that Bazz was carrying too much weight at UCLA.

Bazz_medium

If you look at where he was at the end of last season versus where he was just a few months later, in summer league, he's noticeably leaner.

The weight issue is an interesting one to me because I feel like a lot of fans...and us in particular, as we've had so many other players being asked to add/drop weight for whatever reason....treat it as one blanket thing, and it's really not.

First, there's ideal playing weight, which I see as keeping off excess weight. This is Muhammad weight. At UCLA, Bazz was over it, and when you're over it, that affects your game (and sometimes your health) pretty drastically. You start slower, run slower, jump slower and lower, and sometimes end up impacting your knees because you're frame isn't built to a body that heavy under that much stress (this is the reason why Yao struggled with leg/foot injuries so much) I think Muhammed looks much closer to what his ideal playing weight is right now, which will help with a lot of the physical things he'll need if he wants to succeed as an NBA wing: explosiveness, endurance, things like that.

Then there's differential weight, which I see as trying to get below ideal weight, or losing weight for a purpose that isn't really going to help. This is Derrick Williams weight.

I'm puzzled, first of all, that people seem to think that transitioning from the 4 to the 3 is as simple as losing enough weight. It's not. It's far more of a mental adjustment, with changes in spacing, the part of the floor you see, the things you have to communicate. The shots you take. The angles you pass at. Which corner do I run to? Do I force Shawn Marion left or right? How close do I need to be on Smoove to really contest his shot? That stuff is the real hurdle for Williams, and I just don't see him clearing it. His mindset is that of a guy who's spent his whole basketball life up to this point as a post player.

But also, that losing weight for him isn't really going to help his physical abilities in the first place. Carrying Muhammad weight will slow you down, but losing Williams weight doesn't necessarily mean you speed up. Certain players are just more athletic than others. We had this debate a little bit a few years back, with some people seeming to imply that Al Jefferson could just magically turn into Dwight Howard if he just lost enough weight. That's absurd, and I think this Williams thing is absurd too. He is who he is. This isn't a case were a weight change is going to result in a player change.

But for Bazz, yeah. Get to your ideal playing weight, and stay there.

The other part of this is strength. And I don't mean that as a....

1656203_1_medium

...type of thing. I mean, does anyone still give a damn that Durant couldn't press 185 at the combine? Durant sure doesn't. The NBA scoring record sure doesn't.

No, I mean this in the sense of 'weathering the storm', if you will. Knowing the NBA is a grown man's game and the other guys will beat you up and you being physically ready to deal with that.

Recently, Michael Jordan did a fantastic one-on-one sitdown with Ahmad Rashad on NBA TV, and Ahmad asked him about the so-called 'Jordan Rules'. And the thing was, Jordan didn't argue or rant or question the sportsmanship to Ahmad. He actually put the fault on himself:

"I was beat down by the physicality of what was happening. And I didn't have it [in me] to compete with them. That's when I started to build my body up, and gear myself up for that kind of beating. From that year on I became stronger and stronger and stronger because that became as important as anything else."

The NBA is full of really big athletes. If you're out there on the wing, you've got guys like LeBron and Melo and Artest...guys who are 6'7"-6'8" and weigh 250 lbs...y'know, you've got to be ready to deal with that. Especially when you're the new guy, the veterans like to hit you, try to intimidate you and run you out. Sam Mitchell used to knock KG around in practice all the time. Cedric Ceballos decked him in his first game against the Lakers. The NBA beats you up.

I think a big part of the 'rookie wall' is players who haven't built themselves up physically yet because they're used to an NCAA schedule of 1 or 2 games a week against college level athletes, and as the NBA year goes on, they just get tired. So the more together Bazz can get it physically, the more able he will be to take advantages of opportunities to compete late in the season.

Moving without the ball:

This is an area that's just asking for debate.

DraftExpress' data indicates that Muhammad was pretty good in off the ball situations. He hit 40% of his jumpers at UCLA in catch-and-shoot situations with his feet set, which isn't bad. He also scored 1.37 PPP on basket cuts behind the defense. Those two things combined don't make for an altogether bad player.


The problem is that those two things combined made up just 20% of his offense at UCLA. So while they're the things he has the most positive potential at, they're also the things he does the least. He prefers more often to get his buckets hitting the offensive glass and in transition, where he is far less than efficient.

So the first order of business would be to get Muhammad to change his focus, and play to his strengths rather than trying to be a player he's not.

I understand there's disagreement with the notion Bazz can be a good set jump shooter. And I won't argue there's evidence he isn't and won't be, I get it. I'm just saying there's evidence he could be.

If he's going to succeed at this, Adelman's system is the place to do it. The corner offense is built almost entirely to take advantage of wing players who move without the ball and score on catch-and-shoot and cut situations. The wings move without the ball and the point guard and post players make the decisions of when and were to get the ball to them.


Fortunately we have a good high post facilitator in Kevin Love (maybe two, as Dieng gets his feet under him) and arguably the best passing point guard in the league in Rubio. So if you get to the right places at the right time, you can trust the ball will find its way to you. Although his decision making certainly needs work, Bazz has shown a great ability for instinctively finding gaps in the defense, which is a good foundation to start from.

Of course, the other element Bazz needs to work on to fit into the scheme is assists. It should go without saying, but yeah...a college wing who doesn't average even a single assist a game is bad news. I'm not entirely convinced he's as bad at facilitating as the numbers suggest...having watched a fair amount of him at UCLA, I can say that Ben Howland ran a really bad system. There were several times where it looked like he just gave up calling plays altogether and just let Bazz do whatever he wanted. Much like the impression of got from Tim Floyd coaching OJ Mayo at USC, it seemed like Howland was more concerned with promoting Muhammad's visibility that teaching him anything useful or even winning games.

So I think Shabazz is a guy who can become decent at moving the ball. He just hasn't ever been asked to do it before so it's not second nature to him, his mind doesn't look for it. He's got to change that. In the same vein as his shot selection and the broader sense of whether he can understand what he's good at versus what he isn't, all of this will come down to his decision making. If he can get the core habit of just making smart decisions down, whatever the situation, then the rest of this will fall into place and he'll be in a good place going forward.

Defense:

This speaks for itself. Shabazz isn't a good defender, not just in fundamentals and anticipation, but in plain effort.

This is going to be something that, if he is going to get better, will have to be just a combination of hard work and a willingness to learn. At the least, he'll be challenged every day in practice, chasing Martin and Budinger around in scrimmage. And he has the physical tools for it....his 6'11" wingspan is closer to what you'd find in a post player (same reach as Chris Bosh) and his lane agility tested out at a level comparable to Kirk Hinrich and Shane Battier. So it's mainy a matter of does he have the basketball IQ for it, and how hard will he work at it?

Post play:

Love him or hate him, there's no denying Kobe Bryant is one of the all time greats. Much like Jordan, he is cursed with a motor he can't shut off. A work ethic that pushes him to an absurd skill level and drives him to do insane things in his quest for a sixth ring...34 years old and leading his team in scoring, nearly leading it in assists, chasing everyone from Chris Paul and Kryie Irving to Durant and LeBron around on defense. It's just insane.

And much like Jordan, Kobe came into the league as just a raw athlete really, and developed his absurd skill level in response to his situation. He had to learn to shoot because he had to share the floor with Shaq; not much opportunity to get to the basket when your own teammate takes up 3/4 of the lane. And then he moved on to footwork and a pure post game to compensate for Shaq's departure and the need for a post player in the triangle at a time when guys like Kwame Brown were starting at center. And I would argue that Kobe's footwork and post game are the best in the NBA.


This certainly isn't to say that Bazz is going to reach Kobe's level of footwork, but it's a direction he should pursue, I think. He already shows a knack for the post up game, having gotten down the basics. He's a master of the classic push shot, where he backs into defenders just hard enough to get them off balance, then spins and pushes a shot over them before they can recover and jump. Everyone knows that shot. Guys like Tim Duncan and Al Jefferson make careers off that shot (and Shaq, although he would just straight dunk it)

(Poor Chris Dudley)

Bazz has also shown some instinct for spacing and counter moves in the post. He has a good feel for where his defender is, whether he has the baseline or key open, which direction the help defense is coming from. And again, his 6'11" wingspan is a big advantage here.

If you watch the second half of his highlights video up the page, you can see he has good fundamentals and a pretty refined touch in the post. He's going to need to work on his handles, as he can ironically finish with either hand, but has lots of trouble going right in the first place. But this is a big area I think he can develop and use successfully in the NBA. Every wing scorer is taught post up...even stick figures like Kevin Martin will go to it every so often....but it certainly favors a bigger body type, and is something that develops from a natural instinct (aka why Dwight Howard still can't post up), which I think Muhammad has.

And again, none of this is to say Shabazz is a good NBA player, or will be. Simply that I think he has potential to get better at things that fundamentally help wing players succeed in this league, which is why I argue he has an upward trajectory he can go forward with that Jonny and Wes didn't. I don't see him as a lost cause at all. He does a few things well and has the ability to develop a few more, which means his future is still in his own hands.

(Bonus video: Michael Jordan @ 50 - One on one with Ahmad Rashad)


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