LAS VEGAS -- They sat in silence, the tension growing every minute, every pick, like it was being pumped in through the air vents. Last month, Shabazz Muhammad and his agent, Bill Duffy, made a decision: They would not attend the draft. Too risky, Muhammad thought. He didn't want to be the last guy in the green room. So there they were, player and agent, holed up in a room at the Brooklyn Marriott, anxiously awaiting Muhammad's fate. They thought they had a shot with Sacramento, only to watch the Kings grab a suddenly falling Ben McLemore at No. 7. There was hope for Detroit at No. 8, right up until the Pistons snatched up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Pick after pick after pick were announced, and Muhammad's spirit sank like an anchor with every one.
"He was definitely getting fidgety," Duffy said.
Around the same time, some 1,200 miles away in a suite at the Target Center in Minneapolis, chaos had broken out. The Timberwolves were locked in on Caldwell-Pope, and were stunned to see him come off the board. Now, Flip Saunders, just weeks into the job as the Timberwolves' top basketball executive, was scrambling. He had two guys he liked -- Muhammad and Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk -- but didn't think he needed to stay at No. 9 to get either. So he cut a deal with Utah -- "Literally in the time between picks," Saunders said -- to draft Michigan's Trey Burke and ship him to the Jazz for picks No. 14 and No. 21. When Boston moved up to take Olynyk at No. 13, Saunders grabbed his swingman.
The call came before 9 p.m., and in an instant anxiety turned to elation. Muhammad and Duffy bounded out of the room, into a cab and straight to the Barclays Center. Onto the stage went Muhammad, where David Stern waited with a handshake. Onto the NBA, onto a new life.
It's a new beginning for Muhammad, one badly needed. Ten months ago Muhammad was the talk of college basketball, a heavily hyped prospect making a pit stop at UCLA on his way to being the top pick in the '13 draft. The expectations proved too high, however. Muhammad could score -- 17.9 points per game -- but did little else. He compiled 27 assists in 32 games, leading many NBA execs to wonder if he could fit into a role, and was dogged by off-court issues, some his fault (a publicized incident where he brushed by his teammates celebrating a game-winner by Larry Drew II, lying -- by omission or otherwise -- about his age), some not (his father, Ron Holmes', legal problems).
Add it all up, and by the time UCLA's season ended, Muhammad's stock was in free fall.
"There wasn't a lot of consistency from him," said a Western Conference GM. "It seemed like there was always a new issue popping up. It didn't mean he wasn't going to be a good player, but it made teams more nervous about taking him."
Muhammad is in Minnesota now, far from the eyeballs that followed his high school career in Las Vegas, far from the wreckage in Southern California that he left behind. In many ways, it's perfect. Muhammad isn't out of the spotlight, but he won't be asked to be a savior either. The 'Wolves have an established star in Kevin Love and a rising one in Ricky Rubio. They have a heavyweight head coach in Rick Adelman and enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, with Muhammad's help or not.
"This is a good thing for me," Muhammad said. "Minnesota, there is not a lot to do, just go to the gym and work on my game. This ball club, it really fits me."
Added Saunders, "It's good to get him away from the expectations. He's going to play with quality players, he's going to play for a great coach in Rick, he's going to run the floor with Rubio. We think it's a good fit."
The distractions are gone now, freeing Muhammad to focus on one thing: Grow. There is so much talent in Muhammad's 6-foot-6, 222-pound frame, from his preternatural body control to an uncanny explosiveness that should make him a strong rebounder. "We don't care if he can score," said Saunders. "We want more of a total game." Indeed, the basketball scrap heap is littered with one-dimensional players, and at summer league Timberwolves coaches have pushed him to work toward becoming a complete player. Despite pedestrian numbers -- 7.3 points, 0.7 assists through the first three games in Las Vegas -- there are encouraging signs. In Minnesota's 92-54 summer league win over Sacramento on Wednesday, Muhammad handed out just one assist, but if not teammates fumbling the ball away or getting whacked on the way up he would have had a few more.
"He's excited when he makes a good pass," said Minnesota assistant coach David Adelman. "He has made some great passes. He has to get solid on some of the fundamental things, things that he maybe didn't have to work on so much [in college] because he was bigger and stronger than everybody. Everyone wants to see something right away. That's not the way it works."
It's a process now, and everyone, from Saunders to Rick Adelman to Muhammad, knows it. Gone are the lofty expectations, gone is the hype, gone is the ballyhooed would-be No. 1 pick. Muhammad is a role player now, albeit one with the talent to juice up an offense that ranked 25th in efficiency last season. Here comes Shabazz Muhammad, mid first round pick, spoke in the wheel, another in a long list of players just trying to make their mark. The journey begins now.