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.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.