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Updated: January 13th, 2014 5:00pm
Flip Saunders pleased with Shabazz Muhammad's progress in D-League run

Flip Saunders pleased with Shabazz Muhammad's progress in D-League run

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Shabazz Muhammad's stay in the NBA D-League was brief, but the rookie forward seems to have gotten the boost the Minnesota Timberwolves were looking for.

Muhammad, the 14th overall pick in the 2013 draft, was dominant in his four games with the Iowa Energy. Having seen sparse playing time on the NBA level, Muhammad excelled in the extended minutes he was given, averaging 24.5 points (57.1 percent shooting from the floor) and 9.8 rebounds.

Timberwolves director of player operations Flip Saunders, who was in Des Moines Sunday to watch Muhammad, came away impressed with the progress made in a week-long span.

"I think no question he gained a little confidence," Saunders said. "When you haven't played much, it's nice to get down there and just play. I thought he did a lot of good things."

"Whether it translates right now, we don't know, because he's in a situation where we have a lot of people who are in his position. I think he proved that no question he's going to be a player in this league."

Saunders hit upon the key point in Muhammad's return to Minnesota: Where does he fit in with the team's current makeup, and can he do enough to earn a bump in playing time?

Muhammad, who has averaged close to four minutes in 11 games with Minnesota, is part of a Wolves bench that became more crowded last week with Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger back from injuries that had kept them sidelined for the season's first two months. Turiaf and Budinger are major pluses for the largely inconsistent reserve unit, but it also ratchets up the difficulty for coach Rick Adelman in figuring out how to divvy up minutes.

The reality is, barring a significant roster shakeup (injuries, trades, etc.), Muhammad is likely to continue to be a backup option to the main second unit at this juncture in the season. It makes the times when he does get the nod from Adelman all the more significant, a critical step towards developing into the player Saunders believed he could be when the Wolves used their top draft pick on him in June.

"He does do something that we don't have. He's aggressive to the basket," Saunders said. "(Sunday), I think he had seven or eight dunks, two or three of them over people, other ones in fast breaks. So he gets out and he's aggressive, he attacks. I think Coach is looking at something that if he continues to improve defensively he might get an opportunity."

It wasn't hard to see that Muhammad played with a level of renewed energy in his D-League stint. Notably active on both ends of the court, Muhammad was an offensive force, especially driving inside, but he also displayed strength in his rebounding prowess.

Defensively, Muhammad can still be a liability, one of the primary knocks against him. But with the Energy, he showed off a slight edge of elevated decision-making and an improved ability to work off his teammates that has been seen on and off from him at the NBA level.

Again, keep in mind; this was one week in the D-League. However, the Wolves' hope is that it will help accelerate his development.

Muhammad was at practice with the Wolves on Monday. There was genuine excitement in his voice, both from being back and coming off a chance to finally show off a bit in full game situations. But Muhammad embraces the realization that moving into an expanded role with the Wolves will be a gradual process.

Meanwhile, he will bide his time waiting for his chance.

"I definitely feel I'm an NBA player," Muhammad said. "But, like I said, it's all about getting an opportunity in this league. Once I get my opportunity I'm really going to take advantage of it, I think, and I think I'll really be able to help my team out with things like transition and getting rebounds and my athletic ability. I'm just here to help."

Dieng to the D-League?

Rookie center Gorgui Dieng may be soon following the same path as Muhammad.

Saunders mentioned Dieng would likely be sent on a D-League assignment. The move is at least a couple weeks away as Saunders said he wants the Wolves to go through their four-game West Coast road trip next week with a full roster before making any changes.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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