You could be forgiven for forgetting all about him. Shabazz Muhammad’s name does not spring readily to mind when you think about the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The T-Wolves roster boasts three consecutive number one overall draft picks and the NBA’s reigning slam dunk champion. It’s easy for a player like Muhammad, who doesn’t fly quite as high as Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine, to get lost in the glitz and glamour of the other youngsters on the squad. However, he may yet prove to be one of the most important pieces in the Timberwolves rebuilding process.
Entering the third year in the NBA, Muhammad’s pro career has begun with a less than ideal start. Due to injuries and a D-League assignment, he has played in only 75 total NBA games over two years – 37 in his first year and 38 last year. These injuries, in themselves, are cause for concern. If Muhammad can get himself, healthy, there are ample reasons to believe he could be as important to their future as anyone currently on their roster.
It should not be forgotten that Muhammad is a world class talent. Before his lone season at UCLA, Muhammad was widely viewed as the best high school player in the nation. As a high school senior in 2012, he was named Mr. Basketball USA, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and the McDonald’s All-American game MVP. Muhammad was ranked as the top high school prospect by Rivals.com and second by ESPNU and Scout.com and had his pick of top NCAA programs. Were it not for the NBA’s prohibition on high schoolers declaring for the draft, Muhammad might well have been a number one overall pick himself. While the gloss on Muhammad’s prep career wore a little with revelations that he was a year older than many had been led to believe, his talent at that time was undeniable.
Instead of going straight to the show, Muhammad spent a year in the house that Wooden built. His year at UCLA was anything but smooth. Muhammad lost three games after being declared ineligible for recruiting violations (the decision was later reversed), he was criticized for carrying an unreasonably expensive bag, and failed to get appropriately excited when teammate Larry Drew II hit a game winner against the University of Washington. These criticisms had little to do with his on-court abilities, however, and Muhammad’s freshman performance only confirmed his elite level talent, particularly on the offensive end of the court.
Despite a proficient season of college ball, in the much-maligned 2013 NBA draft Muhammad fell almost out of the lottery. He was selected 14th overall by the Jazz, before being shipped, along with Gorgui Dieng, to the T-Wolves in exchange for Trey Burke. It was this drop in draft order, more than anything he had done on the Court, that has led to Muhammad being overlooked as a key component of the T-Wolves future.
Despite the lack of hype and the limited gameplay, Muhammad did show flashes of superstar potential in his second pro campaign. Muhammad had 28 and 30 point games and was third on the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game, while shooting an impressive 39.2% from beyond the arc. He was also second among perimeter players (to Ricky Rubio, shockingly) in rebounding at 4.1 per. In one 20 game stretch, Muhammad averaged 16.9 points per game, tying the season average of the great hope from the North, Andrew Wiggins. While comparing Wiggins’ rookie campaign to Muhammad’s sophomore season may seem unfair, it is worth noting that, to this point in their careers, Wiggins has played more total NBA games than Muhammad.
Beyond the stats, Muhammad showed a desire and tenacity that put the lie to the allegations of selfishness that tainted his college career and draft stock. Shabazz consistently crashed the boards on both ends, and proved himself a reliable finisher around the hoop, often fighting through contact to make plays.
Shabazz Muhammad will never get the kind of hype that is bound to follow Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns throughout their careers. However, if allowed to flourish in the role he is carving out for himself, he may wind up as one of the most important pieces in the championship puzzle the T-Wolves are trying to put together.