INBOX: Why is Shabazz Muhammad Struggling So Far?

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Andy G: Any theories on why Shabazz Muhammad is struggling so far? After his 2014-15 breakout season was interrupted by injury, Shabazz came to training camp in the best shape of his life. Big(-ish) things were expected. Certainly bigger than what he has shown in the Wolves’ first seven games.

Patrick J: I have several theories, some of which are better than others. In no particular order:

(1) His playing time fluctuates and he doesn’t know his role.

(2) He isn’t playing to his strengths like he used to because he “expanded his game” over the summer and is still trying to figure out when/where to use his new skillz within the framework of his role.

(3) He isn’t used to playing with ball movers like Rubio and Towns. Those guys are obviously a net + for the offense, but Bazz came up playing without any good passers, so he focused all of his attention on being a junkyard dog who made his own offense from offensive rebounding and general relentlessness rather than exploiting good spacing and passing from talented teammates.

(4) Some combination of 1, 2, and 3.

(5) He’s afraid that if he makes a mistake, Smitch will pull him. (Bazz needs to play off of instinct. If he thinks too much, he’s a step behind everyone else and consequently struggles.)

(6) Personal issues we’re unaware of.

What say you?

Andy G: I think all of those are probably contributing factors, though to this point he has barely played with Rubio and Towns (19 and 14 minutes with each, respectively) and has spent the vast amount of his short playing season (86 minutes) playing with Zach LaVine and that ball-hogging second unit that also includes Kevin Martin.

Also, I think Smitch is WAY more focused on defense right now (he says as much) and this year’s team improvement (so far) has been most noticeable on that end of the floor. With this comes a starker contrast between the good (the first unit) and the bad (the second unit). Kevin Martin gets away with bad defense because he’s a veteran and because he’s doing better on offense than Bazz. Smitch knows that he isn’t changing who Martin is, but he is less inclined to tolerate defensive blunders from a developing player. (For another layer of speculation: It’s possible the Wolves hope to trade Martin, and want to boost his value – thus, playing him more minutes right now.)

One might point to Zach LaVine as a counterexample; somebody who is getting minutes despite defense every bit as Bazz’s. To that I’d say that the entire organization is obviously very high on LaVine (for some legitimate reasons) and they’re simply going to allow a longer leash with him to use more game time to develop his skills.

Shabazz has, at no time during his NBA career, had anything remotely close to a long leash. He’s either played exceptionally well for a player in his position, or he’s had his minutes cut. That said, his defensive awareness stinks.

Whether that can, or will improve much over time, I really don’t know. I also don’t know whether it’s more effectively worked on during game experience (NBA or other) or during film sessions and practice. I suspect a combination works better than anything, but until they trade Kevin Martin and/or limit Tayshaun Prince’s minutes, Bazz’s game experience will be limited; especially so if he continues to struggle.

Patrick J: As the eponymous character in Punch-Drunk favorite Roger Dodger emphatically told his teenage nephew Nick (played by Jesse Eisenberg) while teaching him about the birds and the bees as part of some on-the-job training at a New York City lounge, IT IS EARLY.

Unlike other young talent–especially Zach LaVine–with Shabazz, we basically know what we have. He will be fine. Probably not great, but he’ll be a useful scorer, rebounder, and an insane energy guy.

As we saw with Andrew Wiggins’ first six games, a player can go from a zero whose future we can’t help to worry over to a hero who puts up NUMB#RS in wins.

No, Shabazz Muhammad isn’t Andrew Wiggins, but the point still stands. Shabazz has, time and again, demonstrated that he has the tools to be microwave scoring threat off the bench–and that he has the potential to be more than that.

I motion that we end this conversation and let the man play until he gets his groove back.

Until then, here’s some Bazz Body Hunting to tide you over.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “INBOX: Why is Shabazz Muhammad Struggling So Far?

  1. Reg Gerads

    Thanks for the excellent post. #5 is a big factor – he is looking over his shoulder a lot. I also think he can be a guy who can improve on D as he gets into his flow on offense (needs the ball!). Great point about #2 – he is hanging out more on the perimeter with that supposed improved jump shot. Problem is that using it requires decision-making and dribbling ability he hasn’t developed yet.

    To me the bigger and much more disturbing mystery is Gorgui. Dude is lost and I cringe to see him come to the scorer’s table. Is that tomorrow’s column?

    • Reg: #2 and #5 were my favorite hypotheses as well, discounting the copout hypothesis (#4).

      I feel the same way about Gorgui, but I’m not as disturbed as you are–my expectations were probably lower than yours coming into the season. I don’t know if we’ll devote a column to his woes. I hope we won’t have to. But I guess we’ll see…

  2. jmndodge

    Regular minutes in the rotation will help Bazz. Bazz and Dieng are both critical to our season success – and while they are starting slowly, I know they have more to contribute than they are showing. Coach needs to design some minutes where the plays are run to their strength, and Zach/Ricky are looking for them. We haven’t had games “out of control” or leads beyond reach where that is comfortable for Sam to say – let’s work on getting this player going – even in our last loss – without Rubio/Wiggins/KG – although it didn’t look likely, there was the possibility of winning almost to the very end. Jones also needs playing time – Payne/Rudez as well. That said – I’m in Sam’s corner – he has been doing well.