How Will the Wolves’ Improved Health Affect Shabazz Muhammad’s Role?

kevin-martin-23-kevin-love-42-shabazz-muhammad-15-and-nikola-pekovic-14

Kevin Martin Returns from Injury

Kevin Martin came back to the lineup last night in the Wolves’ victory over the Boston Celtics at Target Center. Martin had 21 points in the win and felt like a spark plug for the team, even though his +/- rating was -3 for the night. (Eds. Note: A fairly meaningless statistic in a single game, especially when close to zero.) I dislike Martin’s style and defense, and his fugly-j, nerdy, weak, aesthetic. But Martin did what he does–score–and the Wolves won. That’s what matters.

Martin was excellent off the bench. A sixth man role might be the one he’s best suited for in the future–if he’s ever going to play an key role on a high-end contender, that is.

Pekovic Also Returns, Thaddeus Young Moves to Small Forward

The recent lineup changes are not limited to Martin’s return. Nikola Pekovic, another of the team’s season-opener starters, is back. This is more unexpected and, frankly, better news.

Pekovic has a bigger contract than Martin and his injury issues (chronic foot problems) are more worrisome. Some “in the know” fear(ed) that Pek’s entire future is in jeopardy. But he’s back, he’s playing relatively well, and — more pertinent to this discussion — he’s logging substantial minutes. Since returning on January 21, Pek has played in 5 straight games, logging at least 21 minutes in every one (and even played 36 the other night in Atlanta).

With Pekovic back, and Gorgui Dieng playing solid basketball on the front line, Flip decided to “go big” and move Gorgui to the 4, and Thad Young down to the small forward spot. So far, the results of been good. Andrew Wiggins plays the 2. In last night’s win, Thad played over 39 minutes. Wiggins did too. Martin, in his first game back, played a hair under 30. Chase Budinger rounded out the wing minutes with 13:49 of his own.

Implications for Muhammad

What I’m wondering about is how Martin’s return, combined with Thad’s move to small forward, will affect Shabazz Muhammad’s role on the team. (This might seem like premature worrying, but what can I say: I’m a fan of Shabazz, and have never really enjoyed Martin’s game from a fan’s perspective.)

Shabazz has been one of the team’s two bright spots this season. He shined the brightest after his minutes increased in November, and continued to play well after he was elevated to a starting role. The additional minutes were a key to Shabazz’s maturation. The starting role was one he seemed to wear as a badge of honor–he earned it.

Shabazz wants to be an all-star. If he’s going to achieve that goal, there would be a straightforward progression. First, he must become a clear-cut starter in the NBA. Second, he must progress to “fringe star” status. And finally–if all the stars and planets align perfectly for him–he would enter the All-Star conversation.

Shabazz’s attitude has been a key to his positive transformation as a Timberwolf. But there’s a chance that a demotion from the starting lineup could negatively affect Muhammad’s development here.

My reasoning goes like this: Shabazz had made significant progress in his professional development before he was injured. He and Andrew Wiggins appeared to be a potent duo together on offense. Shabazz gave defenses a different look and a physicality that complemented Wiggins in a way that Martin can’t match. (Eds. Note: The opposite is also true, of course–Martin obviously brings a different look and feel than Muhammad, but prior to Martin’s injury, the Wiggins-Martin combo looked less than synergistic. This was probably due both to the lack of opportunities Martin facilitates for others [Shabazz does this mainly through being in scrums around the offensive glass] and also because Wiggins was less mature then than now.)

If Shabazz is demoted because of Martin’s return (or Pekovic’s, because of the need to play Thad Young more at the three), it’s possible that he will regress some. For one, his role will be smaller. There’s simply less “pie” for everyone. Not only would there be fewer minutes for him, but Martin is a notorious shot hunter whose usage would likely cut into Shabazz’s. Not a bad thing, necessarily–Martin’s efficiency stats have been excellent when he’s been healthy enough to play–but a thing that will affect Shabazz more than anybody the rest of the season.

Hypothesis: Shabazz’s psyche seems at once resilient and fragile.

If true, the Wolves should be attentive to this. For all the resilience and patience he showed in getting to where he did, a demotion seems like it could turn this attitude for the worse. Pure speculation, but in his shoes, a demotion may feel like the Wolves are unappreciative of his hard work and production, especially in losing his starting job to Martin, who took his time in coming back from a wrist injury and has never been known to play hard or with courage or with any of the “heart” intangibles Bazz’s effort produced this season while K-Mart was out.

Hopefully this fear is unfounded–and it might be. So far, Shabazz has defied all expectations, including an expectation among critics that he would lack professionalism. But to the contrary, he has looked like a model of a young professional basketball player. If that’s who he is, we needn’t worry about how he might handle the adversity of becoming a bit player coming off the bench for the worst team in the League.

But in the worst-case scenario–the one where Shabazz loses faith in the system or brings fewer of the “effort intangibles” that have made him stand out as a prospect–the outlook gets gloomier for the Wolves.

The two bright spots of this season would decrease to one, with Shabazz becoming a question mark instead of a building block.  The Wolves already have enough question marks in their young stable of recent first-round picks. I hope Shabazz doesn’t end up back in that category, which is right back where he was before the season.

***

The Wolves are off today before taking on the 9-37 76ers tomorrow night in Philadelphia. The at-the-time win-less 76ers defeated the Wolves 86-77 on December 3rd. (Eds. Note: REVENGE GAME!) Is anyone else feeling a (two-game) winning streak coming on?

While you wait for The Battle of the Titans to tip-off tomorrow night, here’s some young Bazz to pregame to:

 

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Timberwolves

5 responses to “How Will the Wolves’ Improved Health Affect Shabazz Muhammad’s Role?

  1. It will be interesting to see what happens. Additionally, you have the fact that if RR is really back in the next week, most of ZL’s minutes will have to come on the wing as well, and I have to believe that Flip is going to want to see him there some as well.

    Of course, the way this season has one, it is only a matter of time before someone (Mo is most likely) gets injured again, which might leave more minutes in the PG spot for Lavine (or LoBro).

    One quibble — you talk of “two” bright spots this season, the second I assume being Wiggins. I would add that Dieng must be close to reaching “Bright spot” status. For what he lacks as a 1-on-1 post defender, he has put in yeoman’s work this year and has seemed to be the one player who “cares” the most about winning.

    • @Sterno: I was actually going to write something in the post to the effect of your “It’s only a matter of time before someone else is injured,” but decided not to, both to set up the hypothetical scenario I wanted to focus on, and to be optimistic that we’ll get to see what this team looks like when it’s assembled as Flip Saunders constructed it. But yeah–someone–probably Williams–is likely to get hurt. That would keep LaVine’s minutes primarily at the point.

      On your point about Gorgui: I think it’s fair to view him as a bright spot, but less so than Wiggins or Muhammad. The main difference as I see it is that AW and Bazz have both shown themselves to be legitimate NBA starters–right now. Gorgui has solidified the consensus that he was a good pick at #21, and that he’s a legitimate NBA center. I think the jury remains out as to whether he’ll ever be able to improve the glaring weakness most likely to relegate him to reserve status for most of his career–his complete inability to defend stronger bigs around the basket. Right now, that’s a huge limitation. For all the good things we see from him–and there are many–I’m a bit less bullish on Gorgui’s future as an impact player than the other two. But like you, I find Gorgui’s attitude/demeanor impressive for a second-year guy in his first run as an NBA starter.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. jmndodge

    Two things…. Martin knows how to finish and ball fake to draw the “and one” – our young guys need to see and learn that. Dieng is working on it, but getting the travel/turnover call rather than the +1 – The veteran leadership will help move the guys to the next level and give them a taste of winning.
    Second – this team isn’t going anywhere this season. Ricky will need to “ease back in” from injury – Bazz will need playing time – and Bennett will need playing time – Our focus has to be on development of the young guys – there is a corp to keep together, (with Pek and Rubio) Dieng/Bennett/Bazz/Hummel/Wiggins/LaVind/Brpwm/GR3 Young/Williams/Martin/ likely Budinger and Daniels should not be in long term plans .

    • @jmndodge: To play devil’s advocate, I don’t know how much of Martin’s funky offensive game (drawing touch fouls fro minimal contact while getting off a clean shot) is transferable to the youngsters by osmosis, or even by working with him. It’s so unorthodox that anyone without Martin’s unique “feel” for the game is unlikely to pick this up, even if Martin would work with the young players. (I don’t know if he does.) It’s sort of how K-Love was never able to teach Derrick Williams how to use his body to draw fouls in the paint.

      The dark art of consistently drawing fouls seems to require more than mentorship–it requires a “feel” for the game that you either have or don’t have. I believe Wiggins will continue to improve in this regard, because of how well he uses his body in the post. I’d like to see LaVine get better at drawing fouls on his forays to the hoop, because he isn’t a reliable finisher in traffic, but I don’t know if he’s going to get there.

      A point guard prospect like Emmanuel Mudiay (currently playing in China, likely to be the #2 overall pick this summer) seems to have the body and athleticism to draw fouls at a high rate due to his strength and body-hunting mentality. But he’s another story for another day.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Rodman99

    I think Thad will be moved at the deadline. He just doesn’t fit our team. We need a tall PF who can play D. Think Mo and Martin will be shopped too. Bazz will get his minutes.

    Enjoyed the read. Am a Bazz fan too.