Harper: What must Shabazz Muhammad learn in D-League to help Wolves?
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Minnesota Timberwolves fans have been dying to know what they have to root for when it comes to the 14th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Shabazz Muhammad has been an afterthought in Rick Adelman's rotation so far this season, seemingly because it's difficult to let a young guy learn how to play in the NBA through trial-and-error when your team is trying to make the playoffs. The Wolves' bench has been so bad and inconsistent this season that many fans and pundits have wondered why a first round pick who is supposed to be a scorer isn't getting a chance to help an anemic second unit.
I've contended throughout the first two months of this season that it's hard to play Muhammad with such a chaotic second unit because he doesn't know what he's doing out there yet. I'm careful to make sure I stress the word "yet" because I do believe he has a lot of good qualities that will benefit this team in the long run. However, as of right now he's simply too green to be able to trust on the floor in consistent minutes.
Tuesday he made his debut in the D-League with the Iowa Energy and had a dazzling first game. He scored 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field in just 25 minutes. He was a whirlwind of activity at times and ran the floor beautifully during a couple of key stretches. We even saw him knock down a corner 3-pointer, showing he does in fact have some range.
Muhammad did exactly what he's supposed to do in this D-League stint: he got some run in actual game environments and showed both what he's good at and what he needs to improve. There was certainly a lot he showed he needed to improve upon, even with the gaudy scoring numbers.
His biggest problem in the game seemed to be an understanding of spacing, something that is key to getting the second unit of the Wolves to thrive. Muhammad is a magnet for the ball; he just seems to gravitate to wherever it goes. This is great for rebounding opportunities that turn into quick strikes but it's not ideal when you're making sure your teammates have enough spacing to make plays.
He tends to float on offense and inactivity breeds frustration in Adelman's system. When Muhammad is active, he's able to get himself in position to make plays that aren't even called for him, which is a great skill to have. However, the moments of inactivity bring about floating around the ball and that just leaves things too cluttered. There were two moments in the half court in which he cut into the lane from the opposite wing when a teammate drove.
This is simply a timing issue that probably happens because he's not all that used to playing at this level, for this team, or with these teammates. There's a level of continuity that he simply won't have in his D-League experience. On that play, he either needs to dart into the lane or wait a beat and come circling in as a trailer. Instead, you're just helping clog the lane. Luckily for the Energy, Othyus Jeffers hit the tough runner.
We saw the same thing on this play later in the game. You never want to be standing right next to your teammate who is driving the lane. This play didn't work out because Muhammad traveled after receiving a pass with awkward spacing. Make a decision and go with it; don't float around the lane to create spacing issues.
Muhammad got out to run the floor a lot in this game and most of it was really good. With a team like the Wolves that wants to push the tempo of the game, having a runner like Muhammad will create quick scoring opportunities. But once again, he has to make sure he's spacing the floor to make it harder on the defense.
He's running right next to his teammate in transition here, instead of flaring out to the perimeter for an open 3-point opportunity. You can't make it easier to guard the next pass in transition by being too close to the passer. At this level and especially the NBA level, the competition is almost always going to stop those plays because of poor spacing.
Defensively, you saw a few plays in which Muhammad just wasn't used to playing within a team construct on that end of the floor. A lot of that could be prior coaching or a lack of playing time in the NBA. Or perhaps he just needs more time with this D-League team before he has the understanding of where he and his teammates need to be. Regardless of the problem, we saw plays that are easily correctable.
On this play, Muhammad is getting screened on a pick-and-roll. He begins chasing the ball handler, instead of dropping down to cover the roll man when it's clear his teammate has the man with the ball. If the roll man catches this pass cleanly, it's probably an easy scoring opportunity. This could have been Muhammad's fault or it simply could have been a lack of communication. Hard to know without being out there to hear what they're saying on defense. But you have to commit defensively.
There were a couple of plays in which he was floating on defense, reminiscent of the problems Derrick Williams had on defense early in his Wolves career. Muhammad is not committed in this defensive help at all, giving up plenty of room to the shooter he's guarding while not stepping in to stop the man with the ball. Either double hard into the paint or be prepared to recover to the corner shooter.
This is another play in which Muhammad's floating on defense either hurt them or a lack of communication by a teammate on a switch caused the problem. Muhammad's man is coming across the lane, causing a switch in the defense. As you can see in the next frame, Muhammad leaves himself in a bad spot defensively and the big man inside is open for a bucket.
It's hard to know if this is just communication or poor defense by Muhammad, but we saw this type of mistake a couple of times. More experience and a little more dedication to the defensive end of the floor will clear that right up.
This is one more nitpick before we get to the good stuff with Muhammad. This rushed shot was an opportunity for the Wolves' rookie to show he can be ambidextrous out there. He caught the ball in a secondary transition opportunity and immediately went to a baseline hook shot with his left hand, instead of recognizing the spacing of the floor and going into the middle of the lane. It's not a huge deal but you'd like to see him develop that awareness a bit more. It likely will come with experience.
While there were times in which the spacing was poor for Muhammad, there were times in which he was a suffocating force against the defense. There is good floating and bad floating on offense. Good floating is circling under the hoop on plays when the ball is around or above the free throw line. This play in which he gets a dunk shows him using almost a Thaddeus Young approach to spacing under the hoop.
He had a transition opportunity when he had the ball in his hands showing he understood how to create good space for him and his teammates. He started dribbling into where his teammate was filling the lane, used two quick crossovers to give himself space to attack the middle of the paint, and drew the foul.
And as you can see from this highlight package of his top plays from the game, he has speed, aggressiveness, and athleticism in the way he attacks.
Muhammad needs to iron out some of the floating that creates spacing issues and turn all of his activity into the right activity. The majority of what he showed us on offense yesterday was a good sense of how to create plays without necessarily having your number called. That's the kind of stuff that will get you playing time in the long run, but you have to learn the system and know where to be defensively.
The biggest thing to take away from Muhammad's first D-League experience is he definitely can play the game. With a little fine-tuning, he could give this Wolves team a nice spark off the bench either at the end of this season or going into next season.