One of the things we talked about before this season started was that a main goal for the Wolves would be to sort through their raft of inexperienced talent to determine who would be part of the team's future and who wouldn't. Nine of the 15 players on the Wolves roster are in their first, second, or third years in the NBA, a huge and somewhat unwieldy number for a team that needs to find answers.
One of the key players who needed to be evaluated was third year man Shabazz Muhammad. There was a ton of excitement among the fan base for Muhammad after his injury shortened but impressive sophomore season. John captured a lot of that excitement in an excellent article he wrote about Muhammad this past summer, envisioning how his role could grow as he headed into his third season. Unfortunately, 20 games in, that hasn't quite happened.
Muhammad's career has been a roller-coaster since long before he was a pro. The number one recruit out of high school in 2012, and widely expected to be a top five draft pick after one year in college, the Las Vegas native went to UCLA, where things did not go well. He scored some points, but the holes in his game became more and more apparent to scouts as they watched him against real competition. Meanwhile, it was discovered that he was actually a year older than originally thought, setting his prospect status back even further, and there were some widely publicized moments of poor body language and attitude that raised further red flags.
By the time the draft rolled around in the summer of 2013, his status as a lottery pick was in serious doubt, and there were some prognosticators who predicted he'd fall to near the end of the first round. Instead, following a trade back from the 9th to the 14th pick, and some apparently unexpected happenings, the Wolves selected him with the last pick in the lottery. Even that was tainted, however, not only by widespread fan disappointment but more tellingly by an abject admission from Flip Saunders that this was not their intended outcome.
Muhammad was a player coming out of college that both scouts and numbers analysts had severe doubts about. Scouts were disappointed about what appeared to be a lack of athleticism and a resultant shot selection that seemed less likely to succeed in the NBA, while analysts pointed to his non-existent production in areas like steals and assists that often predict success at a higher level.
He rarely played as a rookie, logging a mere 290 minutes over 37 games in Rick Adelman's final year as head coach. The Wolves were desperately trying to make the playoffs in what would be Kevin Love's final season with the team, and Adelman was not going to spend minutes on a rookie who clearly had huge holes in his game. There were a couple of flashes for him that season, including a 20 point effort in a win at Phoenix, but overall there was not much to go on from his rookie year.
Much was made of his summer "chameleon" training following his rookie year, and indeed he was clearly in better shape heading into his second season. A raft of early injuries and his own strong play forced him into the lineup, where he showed off his penchant for scoring around the basket, grabbing offensive rebounds, and making the occasional three pointer. He even managed to average over one assist per game, which came as something of a surprise given his score first second and third mentality. Nonetheless, while it was a break out year of sorts for Muhammad, who had a run of 11 straight games scoring in double figures, scored a career high 30 in Utah, and twice had 28, Flip Saunders at times seemed hesitant to give him too many minutes, even while the team often had 10 or fewer players available. There were (and are) serious concerns about his play on the defensive side of the ball, and despite the tanking catastrophe that was last season, Muhammad was still somewhat limited, averaging 23 minutes a game.
He was injured 35 games into the season and while he briefly returned for three games a couple of weeks later, his season was effectively over. However, he had shown enough, at least to a large segment of the fan base, that a lot was expected of him coming into his third year in the league.
This year has been something of a disappointment so far. While his game remains the same in broad strokes, and he's been finishing inside the arc better than ever (54% on 2PA), in other areas he's regressed.
Perhaps more significantly, he appears to be on a rather short leash from head coach Sam Mitchell. He's averaging just over 17 minutes a game, and even when he's going well, as he was against the Lakers when he started 6-6 from the field, Mitchell seems unwilling to give him extended minutes as he finished with 15 in an overtime game.
To an extent this is understandable since Muhammad's numbers are not crying out for more playing time. More on this below, but he currently sits 73rd of 77 SFs in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus ratings at -3.96 and a significant negative on both sides of the ball. Still, the fact that he can't seem to wrest playing time away from veterans like Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin in what is supposed to be a development/evaluation year at least in part seems telling about how the coaching staff views him.
Layne Vashro, one of the most respected draft analysts around, has pointed out that Muhammad is the perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of current draft modelling. While in many ways Muhammad is exactly what the models expected, the biggest weakness they have is predicting NBA scoring ability. It turns out that Muhammad can score at the NBA level, which gives him a chance at a career, while the rest of his game is somewhere between limited and non-existent at this point.
Meanwhile, Muhammad has become something of a fan favorite among Wolves fans, me included. When he is going well, he is very fun to watch. His relentless attacking of the rim, his aggressive power post-up game, and his incredible thirst to just get the damn ball and put it in the basket against significantly bigger players is not only fun, but inspiring in its way.
Also, aesthetically speaking, outliers can be fun, and Muhammad is something of an outlier. He led the league last season in points per touch, which is arguably not a good thing, but his blatant and unrepentant desire to score is extremely entertaining.
Unfortunately, he does very little else. He is renowned for never passing the ball. He has struggled defensively throughout his career and there is no evidence that this is getting better. He constantly gets lost in the team defensive scheme, costing the Wolves baskets at that end.
Muhammad is a tough guy to find comparisons for, at least in today's game. Stylistically, he resembles a handful of small forwards from the 1980s who featured similar power post-up games--famously guys like Bernard King and Adrian Dantley. We rarely see that sort of player anymore (which makes Muhammad even more entertaining as he's so unusual in today's game) as wing players have gravitated further away from the basket and sophisticated help defenses usually snuff out smaller guys posting up. His ability to finish inside, especially from rather static post-up positions is an amazing skill for an undersized, 6'5" small forward.
In more broad statistical strokes we can find somewhat similar players. We could put Muhammad in a group defined as: guys who score and even do so fairly efficiently, but don't do much else. Players like this often wind up as top scorers on bad teams, and sometimes have their best years as 6th men with better teams. We've had a couple on the Wolves in recent times: Al Jefferson broadly fits this category. Kevin Martin is a good example--scored a ton with poor Sacramento teams, had one of his best years as 6th man with the Thunder. Another example that I like is Antawn Jamison, who scored a ton with bad Golden State teams to begin his career, and with mediocre Washington teams through his prime, but had a year in between with a 50 win Mavs team where he came off the bench to great effect.
Of course it remains to be seen if Muhammad gets enough of an opportunity to fill even one of these roles, or if his game evolves into something more well-rounded.
As hinted at, Muhammad has still not reached a point where he is clearly helping the team on a regular basis. Over last season's 38 games played, which were clearly his high point thus far in his career, Muhammad posted an RPM of -1.93, good for 42nd out of 72 small forwards in the sample. This included a positive offensive RPM, but a brutally negative defensive RPM. Of course, the Wolves as a whole were catastrophically bad last season, and we have to wonder how playing on a 16 win team effects things.
Still, on a team that was historically bad defensively, the Wolves were even worse at that end of the floor when Muhammad was on the court compared to when he wasn't.
He appears to have regressed this season, though we are only 366 minutes in. His -3.96 RPM is 73rd out of 77 small forwards, and includes negative RPM both offensively and defensively.
While he's doing an excellent job finishing inside the arc (which includes a bizarrely high and likely not sustainable 62.5% shooting from 16'-23'), his numbers have regressed elsewhere on offense, with a lower FTr, worse three point shooting, and fewer assists (never a strength) with more turnovers, and most worryingly, fewer offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, his usage is down to a barely above average 21.4% from over 25% last season, something that won't do for him long term, as regardless of where his game goes from here, scoring in volume is almost certainly going to be its core. Further, there is little to suggest that he's gotten better defensively, which has always been his bugaboo.
A caveat to this season's numbers is the players he's been on the court with. The four players with whom he has shared the court with most this season are Gorgui Dieng, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica, and Kevin Martin. With the possible exception of Bjelica, who is a rookie still figuring things out himself, this is a group that does not feature a lot of natural court awareness, vision, or passing instincts. Rather, all of Dieng, Martin, and LaVine are to some degree tunnel-visioned players whose first look is to the basket, and often indulge in a lot of hesitation which gives defenses time to get back into position.
That lineup has held it's own so far this season, but is not designed to take advantage of Muhammad's relentless movement and desire for the ball.
Like just about anyone, Muhammad would probably benefit from playing with Ricky Rubio. This, however, creates other problems. To the extent that Muhammad is going to succeed, it's likely as a high usage player. Understandably, there is reticence to play him with the more talented Andrew Wiggins and emerging force Karl-Anthony Towns, and inevitably take shots from those two players who appear to be the future lynch-pins of the Wolves.
Still, whether because of the limited minutes and his concern with getting pulled out of the game, or for other reasons, Muhammad has not been as effective this season so far, which is something of a disappointment after he tantalized us with a run of exciting and productive play last year.
What is more concerning to me than his play at this point, still barely 1500 minutes into his NBA career, is in fact the minutes. By this I don't mean I am sure Sam Mitchell should be playing him more; it might be justified to limit him, and it also might be that what we see is what we get, which probably is not quite good enough.
But in a year when the Wolves need to figure things out with several players, Muhammad's minutes reduction could be telling about his own game and how the Wolves view it.
It's still early, and there is plenty of time this season for Muhammad to make more of an impact--in fact his last two games have been among the strongest of his season thus far. But it's clear that right now other young guys like Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng have a longer leash from the coaching staff than does Muhammad.
As I was planning this article, we, of course, got a small Woj bomb.
Several teams intrigued with Shabazz Muhammad, but rival executives say that Minnesota -- deep at wings -- is unwilling to move him in deal.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) December 8, 2015
I see no reason why everything in this tweet wouldn't be true. I'm sure teams are intrigued and have inquired about his availability, because he is a player who is still on his rookie deal, has shown some interesting skills in the past, and is not getting a ton of playing time. Why wouldn't teams inquire?
What I do wonder about is whether Muhammad's agent Rob Pelinka is part of this agitation given the reduction in playing time he's seen this season and the fact that restricted free agency is on the horizon.
I also believe that the Wolves, for now, are fending teams off.
For one thing, it's early. We are still months from the trade deadline, and more to the point, the Wolves only have a quarter of the season under their belt, and where things are going is still up in the air. More specifically, while Muhammad has struggled a bit relative to last year, we are still in the development and evaluation phase at the moment, and there is no reason to be in a hurry with a player who at least showed some potential value last season and has another inexpensive rookie deal year on the books after this one.
On the other hand, in the process of sorting through that we started this article with, it's pretty clear that Muhammad is not at the top of the list, at least for coach Sam Mitchell.
Which brings up a major issue concerning player evaluation and roster changes this season and perhaps into the summer that we don't have the answer to: How much does Mitchell's and GM Milt Newton's evaluation of players count for at this point? Given that they are both essentially interim, with little indication either way whether they are likely to continue past this year in permanent roles, how empowered are they to make decisions on players or engineer trades?
Right now, this probably doesn't matter much. To the extent that the Wolves have even gotten to the point of hearing offers for Muhammad, they likely aren't good ones. This is what teams do at this point in the season--make calls on the off chance that another team bites on a below value offer. The Wolves are correctly in no hurry to move guys, especially the young ones whose value remains unclear.
As we approach the trade deadline, however, and especially next summer, the issue will become more urgent--who, if anyone, is empowered to make decisions and act on possible trades? The trade deadline is more likely a time the Wolves will look to move a veteran or two (Kevin Martin, Tayshaun Prince), rather than cash in on any of their younger guys, but ultimately in order to get back anything useful, players of more perceived value will have to enter the conversation. That's where a real consensus on players like Muhammad is needed.
The Wolves have clear weaknesses that need to be addressed. The hope is that some of them are addressed "in house" with some of these young players they are looking at now. But ultimately, not all of them will be part of the future, and knowing when it's time to move on players in order to maximize the return is vital. With the uncertainty surrounding the franchise following the death of Flip Saunders, as well as the apparent impending sale of a minority stake by Glen Taylor, there is little clarity, at least for me, on who if anyone has the power to act.
Personally, I hope that Muhammad finds a way to establish himself as a quality piece of the Timberwolves roster going forward. Despite my original dislike of the draft pick (which still might turn out to be more right than wrong), I enjoy watching him play.
Right now though he's struggling to earn playing time, and while the team sorts through all of its possibilities, Shabazz Muhammad does not appear to be a priority. We'll see if that remains true through the rest of the season.