Shabazz Muhammad has always been the oft-neglected player of the Timberwolves' young core. Even when he was drafted in 2013 by the late Flip Saunders, Flip was apologetic over the draft choice and candid about how the draft had not gone anywhere near what they had planned. It seems so long ago but coming into his lone collegiate season, Shabazz was the highest-ranked high school basketball player in the country. However, this was quickly marred during the season as Shabazz struggled in the NCAA, was known for attitude problems, and had to deal with controversy regarding his age.
Shabazz's career since entering the NBA can be broken down into a few points.
1. Shabazz gets buckets.
2. He plays hard and has a few distinct skill sets on offense such as low-post scoring and has shown flashes of hitting the corner three.
3. Shabazz does not understand defense.
There is a somewhat persuasive argument to be made that Shabazz's habits, both the good (effective scoring) and bad (blind abandon for scoring, unwilling to pass, terrible defense), are born from his circumstances. Shabazz, almost more than any other player in the last three years, has been forced to play with what I have affectionately always called the "trash mob" that has served as the Timberwolves' bench unit. It is easy to imagine that consistently playing with Zach LaVine at point guard, Kevin Martin, and Adreian Payne makes it difficult to find any sort of rhythm, much less establish a cohesive offensive and defensive system.
One can even point to the fact that although Shabazz's DRPM (defensive real plus minus) is second worst in the league, Zach LaVine is not too far behind in those rankings and Andrew Wiggins is not exactly a world-beater in those regards either. Shabazz has also always noticeably perked up with his off-ball movements when playing with what some call a "point guard," like Andre Miller and Ricky Rubio.
However, disregarding the efficacy of those arguments, it is at least obvious that Shabazz is a very specific type of player. The eventual culmination of his career is likely extremely variable, but the fact that Shabazz has proven that he can score in bunches will likely mean that he will at least have a career as an NBA journeyman as teams convince themselves that he can fit within their system and play a part.
If we assume this baseline is true, that Shabazz has a curious fit in the NBA, but it could potentially be out there, then it begs the question, which is why are the Timberwolves relying on him so much?
We have spoken about the lack of wing additions this off-season at length, but the flip side of the question also holds true, because it now seems that we are going to be seeing a lot of Shabazz Muhammad playing important minutes off the bench and if Andrew Wiggins ever misses any sort of playing time, then there is really no one other than Shabazz to step in and play starting minutes at the small forward position. Shabazz is also the only answer on the team if we ever try to emulate our own "line-up of death" featuring a small forward playing up a position at power forward. It is unlikely Andrew Wiggins has the strength to deal with those match-ups on the defensive end, which again leaves Shabazz as the only option.
There is something to be said for NBA team construction for doubling down on strengths, such as three-point shooting or size, which leaves the other team incapable of adequately dealing with similar problems coming from all directions. With Shabazz, the Timberwolves are instead doubling down on weakness, as his issues and problematic areas of his game are extraordinarily similar to those of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both Britt Robson and our own Eric in Madison covered this issue in depth last January, when the question was which of these three players will not fit, as it seemed that something was going to have to give in providing significant playing time and investment between Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad.
Since then, the question has been answered with almost complete certainty when Zach was moved to the starting lineup and he quickly showed that he fulfilled needed three-point shooting and shot-creation gaps in the team, not to mention completely opening up the spacing of the offense. Shabazz, on the other hand, remained amongst the bench unit and dealt with yet another overwhelmed point guard in Tyus Jones who was finding his footing in the NBA.
All signs point to the end of a relationship between Shabazz and the Timberwolves, as it is obvious that to get the best use out of his skill set it requires a stout defensive bench system with an established point guard who would take advantage of Shabazz picking his spots. These things are not going to be happening with the Timberwolves either in this year or the next, but yet somehow Shabazz will likely be relied upon to be one of our few backup wing options.
Whether he, or we, like it or not, the next year will be filled with us watching Shabazz get buckets on one end and give them up on the other, barring a Thibsdust miracle. We might as well enjoy the ride.