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Unlocking the Upside: Shabazz Muhammad Prepares for Pivotal Third Year

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Shabazz Muhammad was having a breakout sophomore campaign before his season turned sour with injuries. Can he continue transforming his game in year three?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Flashback to November 19, 2014. The New York Knicks were in town to face an already injury-ravaged Timberwolves team missing three key starters only nine games into the season; Ricky Rubio, Thad Young and Nikola Pekovic.

Flip Saunders surprisingly announced that Shabazz Muhammad, his first draft pick as President of Basketball Operations in 2013, would make his first career start at power forward over Anthony Bennett, who many writers and followers of the team expected to start for the second consecutive game in place of Young.

Muhammad didn't disappoint his backers that night, which didn't run as deep nine months ago. In 32 minutes, the second-year swingman out of UCLA looked more explosive than ever before. While Kevin Martin erupted for 37 points, most of which came after breaking his wrist early in the first quarter, Muhammad was the real spark. You could feel his energy inside Target Center. You could tell how eager he was to make a name for himself in the league.

That was the night I started drinking the Shabazz Kool-Aid. "Maybe he was being underutilized," writers remarked in various forms across media row. After the game, those same media members were quick to surround Muhammad's locker stall once he was ready to field questions.

Just like that, he was one of the main attractions. Nothing was the same.

Veterans Step Up, Muhammad Breaks Out

Fast forward to present day ... for Muhammad, the rise was real last season. His progression was clear as day, unmistakable even to the casual Wolves fan. As cliche as the "Eyes On The Rise" slogan might have been, especially for an organization that's been invested in "the rise" for more than a decade, the motto rang true for the Wolves sophomore wing.

Teammates started calling him "Bazz Buckets" during the season, an appropriate nickname considering his NBA-leading .541 PPT (points per touch) on 25.1 touches per game. Nobody scored more Points Per Touch than Muhammad in 2014-15 (of players with more than 20 minutes and 25 touches per game).

When Muhammad touches the rock, he's likely going to shoot. As a young scorer he still has the tendency to get tunnel vision, opting for tough shots when passes that would put pressure on rotating defenders are available. He's still a black hole more often than not, only looking for his – especially apparent in transition opportunities – but again, the numbers say there's a strong chance his shot attempts will lead to points. That's what Muhammad does. Scoring is the purpose he serves.

The maligned sophomore wing – who functioned best as an undersized small-ball power forward during his rookie campaign under Rick Adelman – reshaped his body last summer and entered training camp eager to prove his doubters wrong.

Less than one year later, Muhammad has transformed his game from an underused, overweight rookie wing with essentially one go-to move to something exceedingly more unique. He showed a nose for the ball during his rookie season, grabbing 3.0 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, but otherwise his game looked extremely limited.

Muhammad averaged 3.9 points in 7.9 minutes as the Wolves went all-in on ending their longtime playoff drought, ignoring the short-term future, if only for the moment. At the time, the decision was nowhere near an unreasonable choice by former coach Rick Adelman. Muhammad looked more like ex-Wolves forward Craig Smith than a dynamic scoring wing of the future.

During his sophomore year under Saunders, everything started to change. Instead of relying solely on his overpowering post-up game on the left block, and singular approach to getting buckets, he became a versatile beast who started attacking opponents with no reservations. Over the early part of the season players, coaches, media members, and fans alike marveled at his improvement. Whispers of his vast development consistently dominated conversations behind the scenes.

When people asked, "which player has surprised you the most this season?" the answer was simple: Shabazz Muhammad. Every single time. Nobody knew what to make of him during his rookie season, or they went to default Wolves fan mode by irrationally claiming, "Shabazz is another bust." Muhammad often looked in over his head, and it was hard to see how he fit long-term, or whether he fit at all.

Envisioning him as the third option on the wing – who can score, create second chance points on the offensive glass, and get easy points in transition as the Wolves sixth man – is simple these days. With his work ethic, putting a starting role past him seems unwise.

Teams were scared to death to put a two-guard on Shabazz. - Flip Saunders

Paired next to Andrew Wiggins, the burly Muhammad creates serious matchup problems for opposing wings. He makes opponents use their larger wing defender on him instead of Wiggins; typically favorable for Minnesota, and a mismatch the team should look to manipulate more in 2015-16.

"Teams were scared to death to put a two-guard on Shabazz," Saunders stated earlier in the summer on his "Friday Funkadelic" radio segment with Dan Barreiro on KFAN.

Plenty of games back in December validated those words.

All Access: Shabazz Returns to Vegas

Entering his third season in the NBA, Muhammad is now a legitimate part of the young core in Minneapolis. His development over the course of last season was one of the major bright spots in an otherwise dark, doleful 16-win season. His improvement was dramatic enough that finishing top five in the Most Improved Player award vote not only seemed reasonable, but well-deserved. While he wouldn't have beaten out Jimmy Butler or Draymond Green, it's hard not to envision a top five finish alongside Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside if he had stayed healthy.

That's strong company.

December was the month he looked like a totally different player. He started in place of the injured Kevin Martin, averaging 18.1 points on 56.8 true shooting percentage with a 25.5 usage percentage (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) all while posting an insane 5.2 turnover percentage during that time (only .9 turnovers per game). He also nailed 48 percent of his attempts from three-point range, and grabbed 5.3 rebounds.

Under Flip Saunders' guidance, after an intense summer of reshaping his body and working on his explosiveness around the rim, as well as his catch-and-shoot game, Muhammad broke out in a big way. The gritty hustle on the offensive glass was still there, as was his tenaciousness in transition; his constant attacking of the rim, where he posterized guys like Chris Kaman, became a staple of his game in December and early January.

People don't forget, Chris...

Unlocking the upside: What to watch for in year three

The next step in Muhammad's progression – if he plans to make the jump to unquestionable sixth man, or even trusted full-time starter status down the road – will have to come on the defensive side of the ball. He also needs to find more ways to create for teammates, tighten-up his overall handle, and prove to be consistent from beyond the arc on a large sample size.

And Muhammad, most importantly, needs to stay in shape during the season, keeping his weight down as he's worked hard to do this off-season, and remain healthy throughout the entire year (or at least the majority of games). There's no way to unlock the upside if he can't stay on the court.

The improvements made from his rookie to sophomore season were so impressive, it's hard not to believe he's capable of improving these skills.

Defensive limitations

While Muhammad is not considered a good defender, or even average, I wouldn't exactly label him a complete liability on that end. The good news is this: with Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns the Wolves can sandwich Muhammad between one shut down defender (Rubio) and potentially two others down the road (Wiggins and Towns) if he eventually finds himself in the starting lineup. That allows Muhammad to do what he does best: put the ball in the bucket.

In any case, Bazz absolutely needs to work on his defensive awareness. He's susceptible to getting burned on backdoor cuts when ball watching, which he frequently falls victim to. He drifts far too often, standing around in no man's land between his man and the basket, though not functioning as a good help defender whatsoever. And to top everything off, he ends up leaving opponents wide open at the three-point line while his focus rests on collecting defensive rebounds or pre-maturely leaking out in transition, similar to Corey Brewer, in search of uncontested dunks and layups.

His subpar lateral quickness also leaves him vulnerable in isolation situations, where his feet can look like cement blocks weighing down his every move.

Shabazz vs. Shabazz

If he cleans up some bad habits on the defensive end that may push Kevin Martin out of the door earlier than expected. While the Wolves truly can't afford to lose Martin's three-point shooting, the team probably won't be competing in the playoffs for another season or two, and at that time Martin's contract will be up, he will be 33, and the franchise will likely be looking at LaVine or Muhammad as the starting two-guard.

Introducing: The Shabazz Assist

The inconvenient truth about Shabazz Muhammad: he doesn't like to pass the ball. Muhammad is the antithesis of Rubio, averaging 1.8 assists per 36 minutes last season. As previously discussed, when he has the ball in his hands he frequently gets tunnel vision.

One area he can absolutely improve in, collecting easy assists along the way, is distributing the ball in transition. He needs to be more willing to make the extra pass. Part of what makes Muhammad valuable is his aggressiveness in transition. He wants to put every defender on a poster. He attacks the rim relentlessly, unafraid of getting swatted or getting called for a charge. Sometimes that's awesome, like when he destroyed Kaman's soul (above) or when he see's Dwight Howard in the lane and doesn't give two shits about him being there.

The truth is, no matter how fantastic he can be in transition, he can certainly be more efficient. There are plenty of opportunities where Muhammad wants points for himself yet he has teammates running in transition alongside him that could get easy dunks/layups. Defenders started figuring Bazz out, that he isn't the most willing passer in the world when he sets his eyes on the basket, and started guarding him accordingly.

All we can ask for is more of this moving forward...

See how easy that was, Shabazz? Do that more often, please. Teammates will probably be more likely to return the favor.

Bazz from Brew

Handling the rock

That leads us to his handle, one area that seems to be behind the rest. Not that Muhammad isn't capable of taking his man off the dribble in half court sets, or comfortable creating with the ball, but he hasn't shown that side of his game all that much. The results, mixed with my eye test, are not all that great.

When Muhammad takes zero dribbles his effective field goal percentage is 59.1. One dribble? 49.4 percent. Two dribbles? 36.7 percent. How about three-to-six dribbles, as classified by the player tracking statistics at NBA.com? I'm sure you get the theme here... his eFG% is 33.3 percent in those scenarios. Awkwardly enough, if Muhammad takes seven or more dribbles, it bloats to the highest rate: 62.5 percent. However, that only happens about 2.1 percent of the possessions he uses.

We'll need to see Muhammad take his man off the dribble more than once every few weeks if he wants to take a major step offensively.

Muhammad absolutely fits the new-school mold. The game is shifting towards modern trends offensively  – dunks, layups, free throws, and three-pointers are the most efficient shots and best way to use possessions  – and he's showed that game. As you can see from his shooting stats here, he's most effective from less than five feet from the rim or 24+ feet away (three-pointer).

In a nutshell, though ball handling is an obvious area for improvement, the Wolves can still use Muhammad in three basic ways to get the most out of his game.

1) Post him up on either low block (aka let him go to work looking for that deadly hook shot)

2) Have him run like a mad man in transition (drop the hammer over Kaman)

3) Let him go wild from three-point range, letting him launch catch-and-shoot triples way more often*

*way, way, way more often

So... how does the coaching staff unlock the offensive upside in Muhammad? Well, there are various skills and traits to work on, sure, but simply cutting out the mid-range shots and having him solely focus on his three major strengths (low block post-ups, scoring in transition, catch-and-shoot three's) is going to make him a far more efficient, dynamic weapon on the offensive end.

Muhammad made only 29 of his 95 attempts in the mid-range during his shortened sophomore year. That's dreadful, and without question the most inefficient use of a possession.  Sounds like a logical change.

Shabazz Muhammad "Mid-Range" Shot Chart (2014-15)

They should also push him to continue offensive rebounding like that's the only way he's going to touch the ball. Attacking the offensive glass is easily one of the best aspects of his game (2.6 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes last season) and one way he can take advantage of most wings in the league.

Yo, what's up Khris Middleton? You don't feel like boxing out tonight?

More threes, please

It's a small sample size, but Muhammad was 20-51 from three-point range through 38 games in 2014-15 (39.2 percent). He expanding his game outside of the arc and was most deadly from the left corner three (43.8 percent), though 29 of his attempts came from above the break (11-29); in other words, the majority of his looks. Taking his game to the next level means staying around the 40 percent mark on many more (hopefully) attempts during the upcoming season.

Muhammad's best game of his career came against the Utah Jazz last season when he poured in a career-high 30 points on 10-17 shooting from the field. That night his three-ball accounted for half of his points. He finished 5-6 from downtown. He was feeling himself (Utah didn't like him boasting in the fourth quarter with his "double eye goggle" move after hitting his fifth three-pointer, but I loved every second of the sequence).

Staying in shape and remaining healthy

Muhammad has shed nearly 30 pounds since the beginning of July, Wolves' broadcast announcer Dave Benz reported. The weight loss should help improve his stamina and possibly curb injuries. If Muhammad wants to be a full-time wing option than staying in shape, and keeping the weight off during the season, will be of utmost importance. Losing that much weight could hurt his ability to post-up on the block, though if given the two options, it seems more crucial for Muhammad to shed the pounds to help him execute against quicker wings off the dribble. His post-up game isn't going to disappear all of a sudden.

Muhammad was sidelined for an entire month, from Jan. 9 to Feb. 9, with a strained oblique in 2014-15. When he finally returned against the Atlanta Hawks, he finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds in 24 minutes. Unfortunately, he only played in two more games after that. Then he underwent season-ending surgery on the middle finger of his left hand on Feb. 23 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, effectively ending his first half breakout.

While it's too early to proclaim that he's an injury prone player, the upcoming season will start to define whether or not that take is correct. Neither the Wolves or Muhammad can afford another injury-riddled year.

The door is open

Shabazz Muhammad was having a breakout sophomore campaign before his season turned sour with injuries. So, the question now becomes: can he continue transforming his game in year three?

If the coaching staff focuses on using him to his strengths, his role doesn't greatly shift, and he stays healthy throughout the season, there's really no reason to believe he's incapable of doing so. He has all of the tools to be a successful wing in the NBA. If his skills continue to evolve, expect Muhammad to play a prominent role in the Wolves' quest to end their playoff drought. Who knows, after another season goes by he may no longer be Minnesota's best kept secret. The door is certainly open for a big season.