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

12 Comments

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.

image

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.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

Daniel/Getty Images
3 Comments

Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates and family for helping him reach this point.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win.

The last player from Europe to win the MVP award was Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
1 Comment

Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

Getty Images
1 Comment

Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.

Clippers’ Lou Williams won second-straight, third overall Sixth Man of Year Award

Associated Press
Leave a comment

The Clippers bench play this season was the reason they made the playoffs (and pushed the Warriors to six games in the first round). Montrezl Harrell blossomed into his own as part of that.

However, it was Lou Williams who made it all work, which is why he won his second straight (and third overall) Sixth Man of the Year Award on Monday night. He garnered 96 of the 100 first-place votes.

Williams spoke from the heart about second chances and his faith in himself.

“Four years ago, I thought I was done, like I was coming to the end of my career,” Williams said.

Williams averaged 20 points a game and he is still one of the better bucket getters in the NBA, an isolation master. What he did better this year, however, was playmaking, dishing out 5.4 assists per game. His teammate Montrezl Harrell — the NBA’s best energy big off the bench last season who finished third in the Sixth Man voting — was the biggest beneficiary of those passes.

Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis came in second in the voting, with Spencer Dinwiddie of the Nets third and Terrence Ross of Orlando fifth. Here is the voting breakdown.