The Minnesota Timberwolves are on an obvious upward trend. They hired coaching messiah Tom Thibodeau, they have two potential superstars who won back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—and Zach LaVine’s ascending sophomore season brings even more excitement to an already promising squad.
They also have Ricky Rubio who continues to be a team first point guard, finding the best possible shots for his teammates while continuing to be elite on defense. Then there is Gorgui Dieng who had a solid season starting opposite of Towns, Nemanja Bjelica who showed flashes of being a great contributor at the end of the season, and Tyus Jones showed potential at being a viable backup point guard.
With that being said, where does a player like Shabazz Muhammad fit in? Is there a place on this team for a player who is highly inconsistent as an off-the-bench scoring juggernaut—someone who rarely looks to pass the ball and plays virtually no defense? That obviously is a question for newly anointed Coach and President of Basketball Operations Thibodeau to decide.
Before the All-Star break period during the 2014-2015 season, Muhammad was having a break out season. He was averaging 13.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 23 minutes a game. He may have been an early favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, because the year before during his rookie season under Coach Rick Adelman, he only averaged 3.9 points in about eight minutes per game.
Muhammad ended up hurting his finger that required surgery post All-Star break, and it ultimately ended his season. But with his inspiring play and high energy effort off the bench from the first half of the season, there was a new buzz of what Muhammad could add to the team as part of the core of the future.
This season Muhammad averaged 10.5 point and 3.3 rebounds at 20.5 minutes per game. At times, Muhammad has shown flashes of offensive brilliance and surprising rebounding grit for a wing player. At 6’6, 223 pounds, he tends to play like a post player. He likes to back down his defender and even though the whole world knows he can only go left, somehow, he is still able to go left and score at will.
Even though his three point percentage this season was at an uninspiring 29%, opponents still had to respect his ability to be able to shoot it, especially from the corner. He also did well running the floor on fast breaks, finishing strong at the rim and averaging three free throw attempts per game.
Muhammad's biggest game this season was against the Golden State Warriors which ended in an overtime thriller with a Wolves win. He came off the bench and provided much needed energy, inspired great play from his teammates, and shot very efficiently. He had 35 points, shooting 9-12 in just under 40 minutes of play. He has had multiple games this season where he has gone off and taken over games, it’s just the inconsistencies within his game that are troubling.
The most troubling aspects of his game though are his inability/refusal to pass the ball and his porous defense. When you average about half an assist a game, it should be an indicator that you need to get your teammates more involved.
There are countless examples throughout Muhammad’s young career of fast breaks that could have ended in an easy layup if he would just make the extra pass. Granted, he usually can get it in the rim or will get fouled in the process of attacking—but if there is an easier option of scoring, why not take it?
Defensively during the 2015-2016 season, out of the 81 qualifying small forwards, Muhammad ranked dead last in defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) with -4.43. What this means is the Wolves gave up 4.43 more points per game whenever Muhammad was on the court compared to when he was on the bench.
So what does this all mean for a player once considered “The Next Kobe Bryant” coming out of high school? Well it all comes down to whether Thibodeau thinks he can work with Muhammad or not. Can his defensive genius work its magic on one of the worst defensive players in the league?
Can Muhammad put in the time and effort to improve defensively, can he become more of a team player and pass the ball more, and can he become more than an inconsistent high-volume-scorer? Only time will tell, and you can bet Thibodeau is already considering his options with Muhammad.
My bold prediction:
Look for the Wolves to package Muhammad and the fifth pick in the 2016 NBA Draft to bring in an established veteran to help round out the Timberwolves roster.
*All statistics used within this article have been pulled from nba.com/stats, basketball-reference.com, and espn.com