Friday January 2nd, 2015

If you’ve followed the Timberwolves this season, you probably know Minnesota, languishing at 5-26, has launched a total youth movement. After sending Kevin Love to Cleveland, the rebuild was certainly predictable. With Ricky Rubio out with a bum ankle and starters Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic nursing injuries of their own, the baptism by fire for the talented kids has come sooner than expected.

You’ve also likely heard about the guys Flip Saunders has been trotting out with eyes on the future. The former No. 1 overall college recruit with a nose for the basket? He’s the team’s second-leading scorer. The high-flying guard with the wide-ranging skillset? He’s shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. What might surprise you is those two guys are actually the same person. His name? Shabazz Muhammad.

Odds are, you were thinking of Andrew Wiggins or maybe Zach LaVine, gifted rookies and freak athletes who have enjoyed early success. Totally fair, as both are viewed as superior prospects. But quietly, Muhammad, last year’s first-rounder, has been an impact player in his own right. Logging increased minutes, he averaged 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds on 49.5 percent shooting in December, capping the month with a career-high 30 points against the Jazz. He also shot a scalding 48 percent from deep, performing well enough for the Wolves to deal veteran swingman Corey Brewer to Houston and make room for Muhammad in the starting lineup. Take a look at the highlights below, and you’ll see a different player from the one who spent last season wallowing on the bench and in the D-League.

Part of Muhammad’s transformation has been literal. The UCLA product spent the offseason rededicating himself to basketball and reshaping his body. Grueling workouts with trainer Frank Matrisciano, who’s worked with pros including Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph, helped the 6-foot-6 scorer drop 20 pounds (the team lists him at 227). Despite his struggles, the talent had always been there, with a strong work ethic often shrouded by off-court controversy the past couple of years. For those watching closely, the scorer’s emergence as one of the league’s most improved players hasn't been a total surprise.

“It’s been a big adjustment for me,” Muhammad said. “I’ve really tried to figure myself out, and if I can play in this league and be successful. All the work I put in this summer has really paid off for me. I’m just starting to get back the confidence level I had in high school, and that’s the biggest thing.”

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It’s easy to forget that Muhammad was once ranked the top recruit in the 2012 class, considered a potential No. 1 draft pick thanks to his innate ability to score at all three levels of the floor. His highlights from his recent 30-point explosion included catching lobs, draining five three-pointers and scoring on back-cuts and post-ups. In other words, he's displaying the offensive tools that once made him so coveted.

The fact Muhammad made the All-Pac-12 first team as a freshman at UCLA can slip your mind almost as easily. Playing in the national spotlight, he quickly earned a reputation as a ballhog, while averages of 17.9 points and 5.2 rebounds and a 25-10 record somehow felt disappointing. Given the individual praise he’d earned in high school and the Bruins’ preseason title hopes, the hype had gone mostly unrealized.

“The system made it really hard for me to show all the different pieces of my game, but that’s something I agreed to do [when picking] UCLA,” Muhammad says. “I thought I had a decent year, a lot of people around the [time of the] draft doubted me. There was a lot of motivation coming in as a rookie, but then I wasn’t playing. There was a lot of stuff that built up, and I’m just happy to see myself coming out of it in a positive way.”

Even more glaring were the off-court troubles marring his image. An arduous NCAA investigation caused him to miss UCLA's first three games and pay back $1,600 for receiving illegal benefits while on unofficial visits. He donned a lavish Gucci backpack, an apparent gift from his family that led to public speculation on who might have paid for it. And at season’s end, the Los Angeles Times revealed Muhammad’s father, Ron Holmes, had been lying about his son’s age for years. It turned out Shabazz, who used physical strength to his full advantage as a prep star, was actually 20, not 19 as listed. A lost year of potential development marked yet another red flag in Muhammad’s draft portfolio.

“Everything that happened in college, a lot of it didn't have to do with me,” he says. “It had to do with a lot of the people doing my outside stuff. That’s something I want other kids coming out of college to know, [to be aware of] what’s really going on. That stuff can really hurt you, and it was a big factor with me.”

By the time the Wolves selected him No. 14 overall in 2013, expectations for Muhammad had already slipped. He was kicked out of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program that August, breaking the rules by having a female guest in his hotel room. He appeared in just 37 games in a tumultuous rookie campaign, plus a four-game D-League trip. Riding the bench was a challenge he’d never faced. Averages of just 3.9 points and 1.4 rebounds earned him the dreaded "bust" label.

“I was always under a microscope, all my years,” Muhammad says. “The NCAA investigation and all that had a lot to do with it. And being the No. 1 player in the country, there’s always gonna be something that comes with it.”

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The narrative arc of Shabazz's fall from grace appeared complete. Some wrote his career off, despite the fact he was still just 21. Critics saw the perfect storm of negative attention, unfulfilled expectations and on-court failure, but as Muhammad has begun to prove, the missing ingredient for success can be as simple as a proper opportunity.

Through a combination of his own preparation and Minnesota’s injuries, Muhammad’s window re-opened. Losing weight facilitated his move from small forward to shooting guard, a better positional fit at 6-foot-6. He’s never been a stellar defender, but has guarded his position well enough to stay on the floor. A 6-foot-11 wingspan has always helped Muhammad attack bigs on the interior, and now it allows him take opposing guards down on the block.

“I feel like the post game has been my bread and butter,” he says. “I’ve also really been working at coming off screens, pick-and-rolls. I’m just really comfortable posting up those smaller guys.”

Not only has Muhammad found a home in the post, but he’s shown a penchant for sneaky off-ball cuts that will serve him well when passing maestro Ricky Rubio returns this month. He’s also helped himself out by attacking the glass, leading all qualified guards in offensive rebound percentage (9.1 percent). He still might never be counted on for assists, but averages less than one turnover per game. That said, he often shoots the ball before he has a chance to lose it, but when scoring the way he has been, it’s tough to harp on.

On a Wolves squad in midst of growing pains, Muhammad’s breakout has been a pleasant development. Six months ago, he neared early-career limbo. Now, it’s easy to see him as a useful contributor at the very least as the franchise works things out over the next few years. Muhammad, Wiggins and LaVine have been hanging out off the court, the eldest of the three offering occasional tips of his own.

“I think we’re going to be a really good team,” he says. “We’re just figuring some stuff out. Me, Zach and Andrew, it’s our first time playing big-time minutes. We’re all trying to find our identity, and it’s something I think we’ll do by the end of the season.”

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