Shabazz Muhammad in the D-League: A Preliminary Scouting Report

Shabazz Muhammad made his NBA D-League debut this week for the Iowa Energy

Shabazz Muhammad made his NBA D-League debut this week for the Iowa Energy

Timberwolves rookie Shabazz Muhammad has now played his first three D-League games. Assigned to the Iowa Energy, Muhammad participated in the D-League Showcase this week, helping the Energy to two wins (box scores here and here). Muhammad and the Energy played again on Saturday night, losing 124-121 to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (box score here).

The excellent D-League blog Ridiculous Upside provided some timely analysis of Shabazz’s performance in the Showcase:

Muhammad only played a total of 48 minutes in his two D-League games this week, but he scored 46 points on 62.5 percent shooting and pulled down 18 rebounds. He’s done a fantastic job on the glass and has been too much to handle for opposing teams around the basket and on the fast-break, scoring 13 of his 23 points per game on second-chance opportunities or in the open-court. He’s also played with tons of energy, which has been a great fit in the Energy’s high octane offense. Obviously there were a few little issues here and there, but he’s had a great stint with Iowa and has clearly been a man on a mission.

The piece is worth reading in full.

Scouting Report

I watched most of Muhammad’s two games in the Showcase. I wasn’t able to watch last night’s game, but it appears that he continued what he started in the Showcase, scoring 26 points and collecting 12 rebounds, 10 of which came on the offensive end. Here are my quick reactions based on what I’ve seen, in bullet-point format, because they’re just that–quick reactions that aren’t fully developed yet. Besides, the sample size isn’t large enough to draw firm conclusions from, so this is intended to read more like a scouting report than an analytic product.

  • Shabazz is still doing the things the Wolves praised him for in training camp: Namely, he’s rebounding well. The effort is strong. As in training camp, Muhammad really worked hard on the offensive glass. This is a good sign, because he is exploiting his comparative advantages: (1) His physical strength as a small forward, and (2) his ability to get to the foul line and make free throws. Just as was reported during training camp, the effort was there in Reno.
  • Shabazz can score: Muhammad has put a lot of points so far in his D-League stint, and he has scored them in a variety of ways. In Reno, he got out on the break, he found seams in the defense for easy buckets, he drew fouls, he showed a nice little jump hook and a (slightly less nice) push shot/floater in the lane, and he made lots of free throws. He made a few jumpers, but he wasn’t consistently looking to shoot from much outside the paint. He can score at the pro level, but if and when he starts getting regular NBA minutes, he likely won’t be much of a threat from three-point land. This isn’t shocking, as he was never a great long-range shooter, but he doesn’t appear to have added it to his repertoire. (To be fair, Muhammad shot a respectable 37.7% from [NCAA] distance in his lone college season at UCLA.] He would do well to attend the Kevin Love Skills Camp in the offseason and work on his three-point shot.
  • Shabazz runs the floor well: Muhammad ran the floor as hard as anyone in Reno. He really loves to get out on the break and would’ve had even more points than he did had he been playing with more skilled and willing passers. (Eds. Note: Marquis Teague has NBA talent, but he didn’t look like a particularly skilled or willing passer in the open court in Reno.) Anyway, being able to get out on the break is something you want on a Rick Adelman team. Shabazz isn’t close to being able to run the floor as well as the player farthest ahead of him on the Wolves’ depth chart, starting small forward Corey Brewer, the frequent beneficiary of Kevin Love’s outlet passes. Down the road, Muhammad won’t run the floor with Brewer’s or Thad Young’s speed or grace, but he should fit in surprisingly well on an up-tempo team. (Eds. Note: It feels really odd using “grace” and “Corey Brewer” in the same sentence, but as Steve McPherson has noted, Brewer takes long outlet passes like a skilled wide receiver. It’s when Brewer is trying to dribble at high speed that the he lacks gravitas.)
  • Shabazz is a good offensive rebounder: I mentioned this to above, but ‘Bazz hits the offensive glass *really* hard. He had four offensive boards in each of his first two games, and did even better last night, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds. His combination of strength, sound positioning, and dogged determination on the offensive glass is perhaps even more encouraging than his numbers indicate. In the time that I saw, Muhammad didn’t appear overly prone to over-the-back fouls, and he got a bunch of putback buckets, both off of his own misses and off of others’. He’ll never be Kevin Love or Dennis Rodman on the glass, but to the extent he’ll have a plus skill at the pro level, it will probably be offensive rebounding from the SF position. The key to exploiting it will be putting him in rotations where offensive rebounding is needed. (I.e., you want ‘Bazz on the court when Kevin Love is on the bench. He’s unlikely to snare many offensive rebounds from high-level bigs who rebound well, but at some point, ‘Bazz might feast in this respect against opposing second units.)
  • Shabazz didn’t appear confident in his jump shot: This was the most disappointing thing about Muhammad’s performance in Reno. He rarely spotted up on the perimeter or looked for 18+ foot jumpers. He did, however, go 2-2 from distance in Saturday night’s game. It’s not entirely clear if his reluctance to look for his jumper in Reno was because he didn’t need to do so to score, or because he was reluctant to do so due to a lack of confidence. Regardless, Shabazz needs a reliable mid-range jumper (at the very least) if he’s going to have a successful NBA career.
  • Defensive Issues: It was difficult to take away any kind of meaningful judgment about Muhammad’s defense. Not much was played during either game of the Showcase. At the very least, I’ll have to see an archived stream of last night’s game before I can try to make any type of fair judgment on his defensive ability and effort.

To sum up, after finally seeing Shabazz Muhammad playing significant minutes of professional basketball, it looks as though he will need to do the following things in order to carve out a meaningful role for himself in the NBA:

  • Reliably draw fouls: He did it in Reno, and the ways in which he did it should translate to the big leagues. Some players have a knack for drawing contact and cleaning up at the line. Shabazz is one of those guys. That’s helpful, given his perimeter deficiencies.
  • Find a role in which his offensive rebounding adds value: As mentioned above, this will likely be with an NBA second unit or as a starter on team with a front line that doesn’t rebound well. I’d want him out there if Brook Lopez were my center, but he will be far less complementary to Pek and Love in this regard.
  • Develop his mid-range jumper and improve his movement without the ball: Shabazz lacks NBA three-point range, but his mid-range jumper looks decent. He doesn’t have bad form or a noticeable hitch in his shooting motion. But he won’t get many opportunities to take these shots unless he gets into better shape and learns how to use screens better. He’ll be much more productive if he’s more active and perfects little curls at the elbow, cuts along the baseline, etc. He should be required to watch 100 hours of video of Klay Thompson and (vintage) Rip Hamilton during this offseason.
  • Lose 10 pounds: Shabazz looks like he’s in better shape than he was at UCLA, but it still looks like he has a bit of extraneous body fat. Put him on the Kevin Love Diet–the one from this past offseason, not the previous one, to be sure.

Overall, Shabazz Muhammad’s play gave us some reasons to be optimistic that he can become a useful player for the Timberwolves. But some of the weaknesses that we already knew about were still readily apparent. Given that he was playing against D-League competition, that indicates that he still has plenty to work on.

Muhammad is slated to play (at least) one more game for Iowa before being recalled to Minnesota. With Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf healthy and back in the rotation, Muhammad might end up staying in Iowa significantly longer than that.

It will be interesting to see how these first impressions evolve as we’re able to see more of his game in the D-League.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Shabazz Muhammad in the D-League: A Preliminary Scouting Report

  1. Aidan

    Bazz took a lot more jumpers in the past game vs. Ft. Wayne, hitting two threes and a mid ranger. He’s playing PF for the energy and would like to see him play more at the 3. But Bazz has played well in his time with the energy and it’s encouraging to see.

    • Good to hear he shot more jumpers and still shot 50% (and even made two treys!). I’m with you on the position issue–he’s going to have to play the three if he’s going to crack the Wolves’ or any NBA team’s rotation. I should have a chance to stream the game tomorrow, and am really looking forward to seeing how the eye test against Ft. Wayne compares with what we saw in Reno.

  2. Ken

    I am glad to see Bazz is getting playing time and shooting the ball at a high percentage. However, I’m not sure shooting was one of the deciencies the Twolve’s were most concerned about him working on, but rather defense. Adelman players need to be strong defensively because he understands defense wins championships. The Twolves have fairly strong perimeter defense with Kevin Martin and JJ Barea being the weakest links and Rubio and Brewer the strongest links. I can’t see Bazz getting significant playing time until he can be a defensive force that can compete with Brewer for backup minutes. As of right now, Budinger and other teammates are still better defensive backup options. To move from D League to NBA Bazz needs to show he can create defensive pressure that will result in offensive points.

    • Ken: I don’t disagree one bit with your premise. But I want to see more of Shabazz before I write him off as the horrendous defender some make him out to be. (That’s not to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but it kind of feels like the narrative has taken on a life of its own without many Wolves fans seeing Shabazz play enough to come to such a strong judgement.) Among those who disliked the pick in the first place, it seems like this is now taken for granted, rather than interrogated based on accumulating evidence. But you’re absolutely correct–as bad as Kevin Martin is defensively, he’s a professional scorer and a lynchpin of this team for years to come. Ditto Brewer, it seems. Being unable to play passable to decent defense would be a surefire way for Shabazz to ensure he doesn’t see many minutes this season or next. Hopefully he knows that, and is using this time to improve all the weaknesses that would stand between him and time with a second-unit rotation.

  3. Great stuff. I caught quite a bit of his second Reno game and he was drawing tons of fouls and generally able to do whatever he wanted around the basket.

    Re: the Klay Thompson cutting-off-screens instructional videos, I actually think this is a strength of his (from his UCLA game tape) but the Iowa Energy don’t have the basketball infrastructure in place (diplomatically speaking) for him to show it off.

    Like a lot of young rookies he has three (at least three) basic areas to improve on, in order to become a regular NBA player:

    1) Conditioning. He’s a little bit overweight for his position.
    2) Shooting. Has to knock down open shots all the time. He will never do enough to offset poor shooting the way Brewer and some others do.
    3) Defensive awareness.

    • Andy: Along the same lines, I was thinking the same thing about Shabazz moving without the ball and cutting off of screens when he was at UCLA, which generated a lot of easy shots for him in the elbow/extended elbow areas. I guess remembering that from a year ago, and then not seeing much (if any) of it in the Showcase, is what bugged me about Shabazz’s movement on offense (or lack thereof). But you’re right – it might’ve just been the environment/competition/coaching dictating what he did and not any sort of regression in this respect. Still, I wish he’d have worked harder to force the issue on this, because I think it could be a bread and butter part of his offensive game in the League, where he won’t have the same physical advantage he has enjoyed so far in the D-League.

      You wrote that Shabazz has three main areas he should focus on improving if he wants to become a solid rotation guy in the League: conditioning, shooting, and defensive awareness.

      I’m pretty sure we were on the same page here before, but after getting a chance to watch the stream of last night’s game, it reinforced each point–especially the last one. Shabazz just isn’t as agile moving laterally on defense as an ideal defender who’s his size would be (LRMAM is a case in point of the lateral defensive agility you’d ideally find in a good-sized small forward.). No amount of reps is going to do more than change this a bit at the margins. So, Plan B has to involve better overall awareness than he currently shows on D–I’ve noticed him getting caught looking at the ball and losing his man on quick back-cuts and little dives to the hoop more times in just three games than you should see in a half-dozen or more. The good news is that position defense and better awareness of where your man and the ball are can be taught. Pek, for example, improved by leaps and bounds in these areas when he was working a lot with Bill Bayno. Shabazz will have to learn and internalize these lessons if he’s going to get his self regular minutes in the League. If he doesn’t, he’ll get badly exposed by smart offensive teams and find himself back on the bench.

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