How D-League stint turned around Shabazz Muhammad’s career

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BOSTON – Shabazz Muhammad was projected as the No. 1 overall pick.

A year later, he was in the D-League.

Between, Muhammad faced seemingly never-ending scrutiny.

He began his lone season at UCLA suspended for violating NCAA rules. Once he got on the court, his production fell short of expectations, his 3-point shooting especially slipping as the season progressed. The cost of his backpack was questioned. Many skewered him for not properly celebrating his teammate’s a game-winner, which he visibly wanted to attempt himself. It came out he’d been misrepresenting his age and was a year older than stated. Advanced statistical analysis rated him as a second rounder. His green-room invite never came, and he slipped to the last pick in the lottery. The NBA kicked him out of its rookie transition program.

By the time Minnesota assigned him to the Iowa Energy last January, he’d played just 42 minutes 33 games into the season. The early prognosis on him was bust. At times, even he questioned how he’d fit in the NBA.

But in the D-League, Muhammad saw how hungry the low-paid players were, how they ate McDonald’s because that’s what they could afford, how they dealt with long layovers that are foreign to NBA teams with private flights.

“I think that D-League stint was just really important for me, because it was really humbling,” Muhammad said. “That was something I really needed.”

Muhammad dominated the lower competition, and he performed a little better when called back up. But he still didn’t play much for the Timberwolves. He ranked 40th among rookies in playing time last season.

By the time this season began, he’d mostly fallen from the spotlight.

“That’s a great thing,” Muhammad said. “That’s definitely what I needed.”

Now, Muhammad is trying to become what the Timberwolves need.

When Minnesota traded Corey Brewer to the Rockets, Timberwolves president/coach Flip Saunders said the move was made in part to develop Muhammad, who began starting after the deal. Muhammad is averaging 13.3 points on 49.5 percent shooting and 3.9 rebounds per game this season. The advanced stats that skewered him now show a player finding his way. His PER of 20.2 ranks 38th in the league, better than everyone else drafted in the 2013 lottery.

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Only No. 27 pick Rudy Gobert (21.0) and No. 44 pick Mike Muscala (23.2), the latter of whom barely plays, have higher PERs among the entire draft class.

To reach this level, Muhammad – a 6-foot-6 shooting guard – has developed a unique style. He calls himself a “power guard.”

Muhammad’s game starts on the left block, where he loves to post up. The lefty frequently turns over his right shoulder, mastering a single move rather than exploring a variety of them.

He augments his post scoring with putbacks. Muhammad offensively rebounds better than any guard in the game today, and few perimeter players his size have ever hit the offensive glass like he does.

Muhammad has also made enough 3-pointers, 10-of-25 (40 percent) to keep defenses honest when he roams beyond the arc.

“He’s a professional scorer,” Saunders said. “When he’s 60 years old, he’ll be at the playground scoring. That’s just what he does.”

But Muhammad’s game is more than just scoring. Perhaps, his defining skill is not turning the ball over.

Only one player has ever finished a season while playing regularly with as low a turnover percentage (6.2) and as high a usage percentage (25.4) as Muhammad’s this year – Al Jefferson in 2011-12. (Jefferson and Anthony Davis are also on pace to do it this season).

“He shoots it before he can turn it over, so he doesn’t give himself a chance to turn it over,” Saunders said of Muhammad.

There is some truth to that. Muhammad is averaging only one assist per game, and passing was one of his major deficiencies at UCLA.

But he’s working on it, and the results are showing. His assist rate is up to 8.3 from from 3.4 last year.

Really, Muhammad is working on changing everything about the perception people had of him entering the draft. He admits the criticism bothered him, though he leaves it up to the outside world to determine whether it was fair. But of all the flaws placed on him, one bothered him more than the rest – that he’s not a hard-worker. He just doesn’t see that as at all accurate.

Muhammad underwent intense offseason training, dropping 30 pounds below his weight when he went to the D-League. He says he’s now at 215 pounds, and the difference is noticeable. Muhammad has already dunked 32 times this season, up from seven all of last year, including a couple highlight slams:

Muhammad is free to soar not just because he lost weight, but because he has taken ownership of his basketball future.

“I trusted a lot of people when I was young, and it didn’t go really the right way,” Muhammad said. “Now, just gradually being comfortable with handling myself, and it’s really been working.”

Muhammad might never meet the hype that once surrounded him, but after his star fell, he’s quietly exceeding the re-calibrated expectations. Muhammad has rarely been the player people think he is.

He hopes, though, perception will eventually line up with reality.

“I just want to go out here and show people that I’m a good kid, and I play hard,” Muhammad said.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.