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.
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.