To call Shabazz Muhammad’s rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves rough might just be an understatement when taking everything into consideration.
He was kicked out of the NBA’s annual Rookie Transition Program for violating the rules, wasn’t in the best of shape, really struggled find his natural position at the pro level and received more DNP-CDs (Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision) than expected. He entered the league as a lottery pick, coming off of a freshman year at UCLA where the 6’6 swingman was a star and averaged about 18 points and five rebounds per game.
He was too heavy, lacked a lot of the burst and versatility that is absolutely necessary at shooting guard and small forward in the NBA and even endured his fair share of early scrutiny over whether he belonged at this level from due to his perceived lack of professionalism.
That was then. Now, the 22-year-old Muhammad has lost roughly 30 pounds and appears to have made significant strides with his athleticism, mobility and agility. He’s tripled his minutes played (23.1 per contest) and points scored (13.6 points per game), and has managed to improve his shooting percentages across the board too.
“I think my athletic ability [is the biggest difference after my weight loss],” Muhammad told Basketball Insiders. “I mean, last year I couldn’t really get up or be as quick as I wanted to be. Now, I’m pretty quick and can play either the two or three position. I think that’s a big thing for me.’
As if the transition to the pro level isn’t already hard enough, can you imagine trying to adjust to the pace of the NBA game and attempting to defend against the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant while carrying an extra 15-20 pounds around the mid-section? It wouldn’t be ideal, to say the least.
In addition to re-dedicating himself to fitness, Muhammad improved his focus and professionalism this season. Not only has he increased his statistical productivity, the left-handed swingman looks like an entirely different player having caught up to the speed and intensity of the game in year two.
“I think a lot,” Muhammad told Basketball Insiders. “That first year was really good for me. Even though I was sitting on the bench, I was still learning a lot just watching and studying the game. Now, I can just go out there and play because the game at first seemed really fast but now it’s really slowing down. I’m now taking all that in and [adjusting] my pace.”
Those certainly don’t sound like the words of someone dealing with a maturity issue. Muhammad was even grateful for the time he spent in the D-League last season with the Iowa Energy. Throughout four games, Muhammad averaged 24.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and credits the experience for improving his self esteem, which he took with him into what was a very productive offseason.
“It definitely helped and gave me some confidence,” Muhammad said of the D-League. “Growing up, I’ve always been a good player in high school and college so when I first got here [in Minnesota], I just needed to build some confidence by going to the D-League. I really liked how the D-League prepared me for the future and I’m happy I went there and did what I did.”
After impressing in Summer League, Muhammad hit the ground running in Minnesota in his sophomore campaign. He averaged 18.1 points throughout the month of December while playing starter’s minutes for the injury-depleted Timberwolves. Although Muhammad, himself, has missed some time this year due to a strained oblique, he continues making subtle but steady improvements along with the rest of Minnesota’s young core.
That core of guys like Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and vet Thaddeus Young may not have won many games in the absence of starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, but the extended minutes and playing opportunities should pay dividends for this squad moving forward.
“I know we are losing some games because we had a lot of guys out, but I see it as a good and bad situation,” Muhammad said. “It was good because having a lot of guys out gave the young guys a lot of experience and it was bad obviously because we were losing. But with our young core, I think we are going to be pretty good in the next couple years.”
Muhammad was selected to represent the U.S. team in what should be a compelling Rising Stars Challenge. This year, the NBA decided to pit some of the top U.S.-born athletes against players from around the world, which is not only a smart way to continue the globalization of the game, but should also make for a highly competitive contest.
As Muhammad continues to realize his full potential and develop, he’s hoping to silence his doubters and remind everyone just why he was so highly touted as a prep star.
“I think it’s just continuing to do what I’m doing,” Muhammad said when asked how he make yet another leap next season. “Like staying in the gym, really working on my right hand and ball handling.
“A big goal for me is to play in the Sunday game [the All-Star Game]. That is something that I really look forward to so I just have to keep up the hard work.”
It’s always great to see players finding a way to ward off the proverbial sophomore slump, especially after a rookie season that was an unmitigated disappointment. Muhammad has not only managed to do that, he’s actually given the fans in Minnesota yet another piece to be excited about moving forward. Muhammad realizes the opportunities before him, and remains focused on doing whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. He may be competing in the Rising Stars Challenge this season, but we certainly wouldn’t be shocked to see Muhammad achieve his goal of playing the Sunday game in the years to come.
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