Shabazz Muhammad joins Timberwolves with a 'chip on his shoulder'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Shabazz Muhammad knows he wasn't a popular pick.
When the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled a surprising trade in the first round of Thursday's topsy-turvy NBA draft that brought in the polarizing former UCLA star, the immediate reaction from the team's fan base was one tarnished with an obvious layer of negativity.
But this didn't hinder Muhammad, the 14th overall pick, from doing what he could to leave a solid initial impression when he was introduced to the media Friday at the Target Center, alongside fellow first round selection Gorgui Dieng (No. 21).
Muhammad was open and straightforward when answering questions about the less-than-positive reception he has received from some sources. He fielded the onslaught of inquires calmly and in a manner that on first glance came off as genuine. Muhammad understands the knocks against him and knows that now the job becomes proving he belongs on the NBA level.
"I love changing people's opinions," Muhammad said. "I kind of like that that happened, because it kind of gives me a chip on my shoulder and I'm willing to work, so we can come in and start winning some games."
The fact that Muhammad ended up with the Wolves at No. 14 in the fashion that it occurred caught many onlookers by surprise.
The Wolves spent their ninth overall pick on point guard Trey Burke, but behind the scenes president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was mounting a trade with the Utah Jazz. The deal shipped Burke away from the point guard-heavy team in an effort to acquire Muhammad and Dieng, a 23-year-old efficient shot blocking center out of Louisville.
Saunders later admitted the draft did not go as planned, having come into the night with four scenarios in mind. Muhammad was scenario No. 4.
That hasn't deterred Saunders from fully backing his decision to go with Muhammad, who has the ability to play both as a small forward and a two-guard.
"Some people maybe like it. Some people don't," Saunders said. "I'm excited about it, because we filled holes. ... We were very low in our league scoring from our twos and threes (last season). Shabazz will help out on that. Is he going to be a starter? Probably not. If he's good enough then yeah."
Muhammad, who has been under a heightened spotlight ever since he became one of the top high school recruits in the nation, comes to Minnesota bearing an extended list of labels. In his lone season at UCLA, Muhammad's aggressive knack for scoring was on display as he had one of the most prolific freshman scoring seasons in the Bruins' storied history (17.9 points).
But praise for his obvious scoring ability has been tempered by a well-publicized negative perception of his character both on and off the court and his perceived shoot-first, selfish mentality.
Changing that perception was a primary goal for Muhammad as he progressed throughout the pre-draft workout process, striving to convince teams he can adapt to what will be one of the first times in his life hat he will be in more of a secondary role.
"It's one thing I've really been working on," Muhammad said. "You figure it out. It makes life way easier if you're more unselfish, the floor opens more for yourself and also for your teammates. I'm really concentrating on that."
Saunders has spoken often with Muhmmad's former UCLA coach, Ben Howland, to get an understanding of the upside the sleek scoring "tweener" may posses. Howland's wholehearted praise was one of the reasons that helped convince the Wolves to gamble on Muhammad.
The fresh start Muhammad gains by stepping into his new setting in Minneapolis, Howland says, is what he needs to shed the raw side of his current image.
"I think he understands he's starting over. Here's a kid that is two years out of high school," Howland said on a conference call Friday with a small group of local reporters. "There's all these questions (surrounding him). I think he'll have a chip on his shoulder and can't wait to get out there. He's a great competitor and when the lights go on he gets better."
• Muhammad originally requested jersey No. 15 with the Wolves, but when he found out Mickael Gelabale already owned the number, he opted for a more obscure explanation.
"Nobody wears zero in the league, so I might as well wear zero," he explained.
However, he may have his chance to nab his first choice. It is looking unlikely that the Wolves exercise their option on Gelabale's contract, which must be picked up by mid-July.
• Saunders confirmed that Muhammad, Dieng and second round pick Lorenzo Brown will be playing for the Wolves in the NBA's summer league this July in Las Vegas.
• Dieng, who developed into a dominate defensive center in his three years at Louisville, was with the Cardinals at the same time Minnesota Gophers coach Richard Pitino was serving as an assistant under his father, Rick. Dieng was very forthcoming with his praise of the new face of the Gophers basketball program.