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.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.