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Shabazz Muhammad's Emergence and What it Means for the Future of the Timberwolves

Shabazz Muhammad has been the pleasant surprise of an otherwise dreary Timberwolves season. I was wrong about Muhammad, and he's becoming a focal point for the Wolves. What does that look like, and what could it mean for the future?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Let's start here, with what I wrote on draft night, 2013:

I hope, somehow, that Muhammad can play. But there is no evidence to suggest he can. Literally zero wing players with his statistical profile have succeeded in the NBA. Zero, as in none. His primary red flags statistically are his lack of assists and steals, but in truth, his only reasonably good skill is catch and shoot jump shots. Other than that, it's hard to find anything he does well.

But regardless of the outcome of this draft pick, it is another example of bad process for this franchise. The process that led to Kahn was bad, the process that led to Saunders was bad, and Saunders' process leading to Shabazz Muhammad was bad.

In truth, I don't think many in Wolves Nation were particularly happy about how that draft played out, or about Muhammad as a prospect. Still, I was the most outspoken, and I deserve to take the hit for being wrong.

Being wrong about something like this is an odd thing. Usually, being wrong makes us feel bad. We messed up. We blew the test. We let ourselves (and often others) down. In a case like this, though, there's an upside to being wrong. Shabazz Muhammad is playing like a man possessed. He's outplaying all expectations I had for him, and he's doing it in the uniform of the team I root for and desperately want to see succeed.

Still. I was wrong, and there's a downside. Mostly, the downside is questioning myself, and whether taking strong positions is worth it. I don't fancy myself an expert, but being wrong about this makes me wonder if I'm wrong about everything Wolves. And if I am, what am I doing here?

But this is an article about Shabazz Muhammad.

In the 27 games to start this season, Muhammad has played better than I ever expected. He's scoring in volume and with pretty good efficiency. He's relentless looking for his offense, and has forced his way into more minutes, and at least for the moment, the starting lineup.

He's also a very unusual player.

SnP used to refer to the Wolves as The Island of Misfit Toys. Shabazz Muhammad, among other things, raises the question: do the Wolves somehow attract guys who are misfit toys, or does being a member of this team make one into a misfit toy?

At the moment, Muhammad's game almost entirely revolves around post-ups where he looks to get off left handed hooks and push shots, offensive rebounds, which he goes after with abandon, and transition, where he looks to finish regardless of what's happening around him.

We see from his shot chart that a strong majority of his shot attempts come around the basket.

Shabazz Muhammad Shot Chart 12.24.14

In many ways, he's a stylistic throwback to the 1980s, where the small forward with the power post-up game was a thing.

In this highlight, he actually make a couple of threes as well, but this is not, at the moment, a major part of his game. He's averaging just over 1 3PA per 36. What we mostly see is a) his post up game, this time often on the right block, which is new, b) his constant movement to get the ball, and c) his offensive rebounding.

Sidebar: Is this the nature of the Wolves Island? Having players in the wrong decade? One could make an argument that Nikola Pekovic resembles a 1950s era center, right down to the hair cut, though not, admittedly, the tattoos.

Ricky Rubio appears to be the 2nd coming of Bob Cousy, the point guard who helped revolutionize the game.

Perhaps things would be better if the Wolves played their games in black and white...

But this is an article about Shabazz Muhammad. Who sometimes looks like a lesser Adrian Dantley or Bernard King.

His unusual game has been remarkably effective, as Muhammad currently sits 10th in points per 36 minutes, comfortably ensconced between Carmelo Anthony and Klay Thompson. He's carrying a 26% usage rate while posting an efg% well above league average.

Muhammad is also something of an outlier. He leads the league in points per touch at .601. Of his roughly 18 touches in the offensive half, 10 become FGAs, another couple become free throw attempts. On the other hand, while he's 1st in points per touch, he's "only" third in points per touch when counting only front court touches--this is because he doesn't pull down a lot of defensive rebounds.

He also doesn't really pass the ball (though arguably that is slowly beginning to change). He carries both assist and turnover percentages below 10% because when he gets it, he shoots it. At the moment, it's what the Wolves need, as they are bereft of strong scoring options with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin out, and Ricky Rubio not available to create quality looks for others.

So where are we with Shabazz Muhammad and where are we going?

One of the things that's fun about writing about young players is that we don't know everything. This is also one of the problems, as Muhammad is in many ways a moving target.

He's clearly improving as we go, adding some things to the arsenal. Figuring out how to score from the right block as well as the left. Improving his cutting.

But as we've discussed, improvement is not a given. While we can come up with age-performance curves, that's for the entire universe of NBA players. Overall, that curve will look like a fairly standard bell curve, with the peak being around age 25 or 26, with slow decline to 30 and more rapid decline after that.

But every individual is different. Some guys don't improve at all (and often find themselves out of the league early because of it). Some guys peak earlier, some later. Some improve gradually, some improve in big leaps. Some guys go years looking like they aren't moving forward at all, then take big steps. Some guys look to be getting better, then stall out. In other words, there is no one size fits all to improvement; you can't make assumptions about any one player.

Which brings us back to Muhammad. He's clearly much better this year than last. Will he continue improving over the next 18 months or so? I'd like to think so, but there are no guarantees. There are obvious areas we would like to see him get better: passing, defensive rebounding, defensive awareness.

On the other hand, we have a 27 game sample, and we are starting to see teams take him more seriously. Last night against Cleveland he was primarily guarded by LeBron James and Shawn Marion, two of the best wing-post defenders of this generation. To an extent, it showed. Muhammad struggled to get the looks he likes, as both of those guys were able to deny his post-ups and challenged his shots with their superior length. It speaks well that he was still able to produce 18 points, and recovered some after a slow start, but both last night and against Indiana on Sunday, we saw his efficiency take a hit.

This is two games, a silly sample within what is still an overall small sample of minutes this season, so it behooves us not to read too much into it. And he was still able to produce even as teams have started to pay more attention to him. This will be interesting to watch going forward, as teams concentrate on taking things away from him. I admit there is concern that once defenses start truly overplaying his left hand, and putting lengthy defenders on him consistently, he won't be able to continue at his current pace.

But that's the pessimist in me. The optimist, and he is in there, sees a guy who has improved by leaps and bounds from year one to year two, and shows a relentless desire to get offense. The optimist sees a guy who is scoring at a rate commensurate with some of the league's biggest stars, and is only 22. The optimist has hopes that Muhammad is a guy who can continue to add things to his game as he gets more experience.

For all the things we have to be pessimistic about as Wolves fans, I'm going to try to let the optimist guide me this time. The gods know we deserve at least something.

But we don't know. We don't know what he's going to be in a year, or two years. Is it going to get better? Worse? Will Muhammad continue to be a volume scorer and not much else? That will have to await the event. What we can talk about it what he is right now, and what players like him tend to do.

But first, let's go back. Back to before he was drafted, back to when I was wrong. Because maybe there is something we can learn.

I was wrong. But I wasn't the only one. Without exception, the sophisticated stats models, that have generally done a pretty good job of predicting NBA success, viewed Muhammad as a likely bust. He was a year older than we thought, and more compelling, the numbers he put up at UCLA were not indicative of NBA success. In particular, he was an OK but not great scorer, and his non-scoring stats, which are usually vitally important in predicting success, painted a scary picture.

His lack of assists in particular became something of a national joke, and here on Canis, there was a project to put together video of every Muhammad assist in his one year at UCLA.

He really did very little well while in college, and it was noticed. Not only by the analytics guys, but scouts too were not that high on him after his performances in L.A.  Coming into the season, he was viewed as a clear top 5 draft pick, but by the time the draft came around, it seemed unlikely that he would go in the lottery. (In truth, I believe that if the Wolves hadn't taken him, he would have dropped well into the 20s).

Even the Wolves were said to be sour on him. We had several sources in the media and even here on Canis who said he absolutely wasn't in the picture for the Wolves. Of course all that changed on draft night with the trade and subsequent picks that left the Wolves with, in the words of Flip, the "4th of 4 options." And they took Shabazz.

The lesson here, as vjl has mentioned, is that scoring is the thing that translates worst from college to the NBA. It's very hard to predict using the available data who is going to be able to score in the NBA and who isn't. Many other skills have strong correlations between college and pro ball, but scoring does not. Somehow, Muhammad has been able to score at an NBA level.

To an extent, this is the pessimistic take. Scoring doesn't translate well. Muhammad is one of the relatively few guys who, without other skills, has been able to score. But at this point, he does very little else, and his college performance suggests that he may never be able to. But. He's clearly outstripped expectations. We can but hope he continues to do so in other areas. And even if he doesn't, there is a place for the player Muhammad is now in the NBA.

The question is: Where is that place?

We can loosely define Muhammad right now as a volume scorer with pretty good efficiency who doesn't do too much else. He is a pretty strong offensive rebounder, but that too is in service to his scoring.

Guys like this often wind up as first or second options on bad teams.  Sort of what he is now, though of course the Wolves overall (lack of) quality is certainly not his fault.  The Wolves, having been bad for a decade, have had some other guys who fit this definition. Al Jefferson.  Kevin Martin as last year's 2nd option. Guys who don't get a lot of assists or turnovers or anything else, really, but score with some efficiency.

There are other examples, one of which I want to point out in particular as a guy who I think represents something like an upside for Shabazz Muhammad: Antawn Jamison. He's a guy who scored a ton of points as a main option for mostly poor-to-middling teams in Golden State and Washington during his youth and extended prime.

But there was a year in between those two stops that I also want to talk about. Jamison spent the 2003-04 season in Dallas, playing for a 52 win Mavericks team, and had perhaps his most productive season, posting career highs in WS/48 and PER. The interesting thing here is that it was also the only season in his prime in which he came off the bench. Jamison was the 6th man for that Mavs squad, playing 29 minutes a night (career low excepting his rookie year and a couple at the end of his career). He posted his highest FG% and TS% that season, as well as the lowest usage of his prime.

And this is one of the points I want to make: often times guys like this, who are capable of being the focal points of an offense, but generally only with mediocre or worse teams, have their most successful seasons coming off the bench for better teams. I don't know if it's a matter of role--there are other guys, starting, who have more well rounded games and take the pressure off them, or if going against more 2nd teamers hides their flaws better, but another example is Kevin Martin coming off the bench in Oklahoma City.  It isn't quite as stark as Jamison, but Martin also had a very successful season as a 6th man, and was part of the most successful team of his career.

Or finally, consider Jamal Crawford. He never appeared in the playoffs until he got to Atlanta and became a regular bench performer, following several seasons mostly starting in Chicago and New York. He promptly won the 6th man of the year award with the Hawks, and again last season with the Clippers, where he has become a vital part of a very good team.

I think this is where Shabazz Muhammad is right now. A guy who would be most successful as a 6th man, where he can take advantage of match ups, use his relentless motor, but not be expected to carry an entire load for a quality team. Which hopefully someday the Wolves will be.

Reminder: Moving target. Perhaps Muhammad will add more to his game and emerge as a legitimate starting caliber 2nd option. But right now, it's easier to envision him as an energetic and offensively minded 6th man, the role he was playing until the Corey Brewer trade. Since entering the starting lineup, he's continued to put up numbers, but as we noted, against the first team defenses of both the Pacers and Cavs, it didn't come nearly as easy for him.

We are a long way away from this, but in an ideal Timberwolves medium term future, Andrew Wiggins is the wing focal point of the team, with help from a great point guard who can get him the ball and speaks Spanish, and perhaps with a low-post presence that relieves some pressure. There is a very good chance, of course, that we never get that future, the jury is a long way from in on that question.

But in that future, it would be terrific to have a 6th man playing like Muhammad is playing this season-giving the team a jolt of energy off the bench, taking advantage of fatigued starters or lesser back ups, and supplying depth and scoring in a reserve role.

Meanwhile for a slightly different perspective, I commend you to this excellent piece at Punch Drunk Wolves, where AndyG writes that he would like to see more of Muhammad and Wiggins on the court together, because he sees them as the potential future wing pairing for the Wolves. I've been working on this article for a while, and forming my conclusions when I ran across that piece, which presents a much different take.

Andy posits that Wiggins and Muhammad, who have not played a ton together, at least until Muhammad's recent insertion into the starting lineup, should be out there developing chemistry. As things currently stand (5-22), I'm not necessarily against this, but long-term I don't see those two as the starting wings together on a good Wolves team. While neither of them may get there, and certainly Wiggins is miles away from getting there, the hope is that they can both be focal points of wing production, carrying relatively high usage rates.

If that's the hope, I think ultimately both they and the team are better served by staggering their minutes, allowing each time on the court where they are the prime focal point. Ideally they would both be paired with a wing opposite them who fills a more "3 and D" role, stretching defenses from the perimeter but not needing the ball like we hope both of those guys do.

That's for the future, however. Right now, this is an article about Shabazz Muhammad, a guy who has emerged as the most exciting part of another dreary Wolves season. His constant movement and aggression, even if it's sometimes in the wrong direction, is a shot in the arm to a team that too often seems to have little sense of purpose. Muhammad's purpose is clear: Get the ball. Score the ball. And so far, he's fulfilling that purpose. It's fun to watch.

I was wrong about him, and that's OK.

Shabazz Muhammad is one of the reasons to keep watching, and he's proving to be a real NBA player. That's enough for me.