Zulgad: Flip Saunders confident Shabazz Muhammad is right choice
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Shabazz Muhammad had a chance to make a positive impression on Twin Cities sports fans on March 22.
The highly regarded freshman forward was considered vital to UCLA's success against the Minnesota Gophers in its first-round game of the NCAA tournament.
But when the Bruins took the floor in Austin, Texas, it quickly became evident that Muhammad and his teammates had little interest in extending their season.
Muhammad missed all seven of his shots in the first half as UCLA fell behind by 10 points by halftime. He finished with 20 points and four rebounds in 39 minutes but was 6-for-18 from the field and 0-for-6 from three-point range.
The Gophers won by 20 and anyone who had paid attention to Muhammad likely was left saying this: "No way would I touch that guy if I were an NBA team."
Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves' new president of basketball operations, was working for ESPN at the time and he watched Muhammad's performance against his alma mater.
"I've been very critical of him and I told him that when he came in here (for a workout this month). How he played really against Minnesota at times," Saunders said late Thursday at Target Center after the Wolves completed a draft-night trade that brought them Muhammad as part of a trade with the Utah Jazz.
It didn't help Muhammad that the same day he struggled against the Gophers the Los Angeles Times reported his birth certificate showed he was born Nov. 13, 1992, making him 20 years old. His age had been listed and reported as 19 throughout the season.
Making matters worse, Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, offered Times writer Ken Bensinger a job if Bensinger would not report that his son was a year older than most believed.
While Saunders might not have been impressed with what he saw of Muhammad against the Gophers, he also didn't completely sour on Muhammad.
So when the Wolves took Michigan point guard Trey Burke with the ninth-overall pick in the first round of the draft Thursday and then dealt him to the Jazz for the 14th and 21st selections, Saunders had Utah grab Muhammad at No. 14.
Saunders acknowledged that he knew the pick wasn't a popular one with Wolves fans but that didn't seem to worry him much. "It's not a popular pick, but that's why you have to take the picks that you think are value picks at that time," Saunders said. "He was the guy that we had rated highest at that time."
Muhammad was one of the nation's top recruits coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and led UCLA with an average of 17.9 points per game as a freshman. That earned him first-team All-Pac 12 honors. The Bruins finished 25-10, won the Pac-12 regular-season title and finished as the runner-up in the conference tournament.
"We were comfortable with him because I do believe this," Saunders said. "If you look at the history of players that have been player of the year in high school, all those guys have come in and been pretty good players in the NBA. I looked back through the last 25 years. Here's a guy that sat out the beginning of the year, came in and still ended up being a pretty dominant player in the Pac-10. I said, no matter what, he's going to be able to score. He'll be able to score in the NBA because that's what he does.
"He's a little bit different than what we have. He's an aggressive ... maybe more of a slasher, aggressive player. What I do like about him is he's extremely competitive, he can score and as his coach says, 'He's a gym rat.' He's in the gym and you almost have to kick him out of the gym, he works so hard. So those are the positives.
"(He) doesn't shoot it as well as maybe a pure shooter outside. ... I do believe one thing. Here's a kid that prior to the season was rated as maybe the No. 1 pick in the draft. He'll come in and he'll play with a chip on his shoulder."
Muhammad agreed that he has plenty to prove.
"Absolutely," he said on a conference with local reporters. "I definitely have a chip on my shoulder and really can't wait to get to work and really take the coaching well."
Saunders said he had discussed an incident from last season in which Muhammad sulked after teammate Larry Drew hit a buzzer beater to defeat Washington. Muhammad was upset he didn't get the shot and walked past his teammates as they celebrated.
"We talked about that," said Saunders, who feels Muhammad can play shooting guard and small forward. "That gets back to my saying, sometimes your greatest strength is your greatest weakness if you don't control it. His greatest strength is he's an unbelievable competitor."
The disappointment that the Wolves did not take a player they wanted to keep at No. 9 probably stemmed from the fact that three of the top five picks in the draft had to be considered pleasant surprises for the Wolves.Cleveland surprised everyone by taking UNLV's Anthony Bennett at No. 1.
Charlotte went with Indiana's Cody Zeller at No. 4 and then Phoenix took Maryland's Alex Len at No. 5.
This meant that Kentucky center Nerlens Noel and Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore, whom the Wolves would have loved to have added, were still available with Minnesota's pick only four away.
But New Orleans took Noel at No. 6 before dealing him to Philadelphia. One selection later, Sacramento grabbed McLemore. This still meant Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remained on the board but the Detroit Pistons grabbed him with the Wolves on-deck.
The assumption of many became that Saunders would swallow hard and go with Lehigh combination guard C.J. McCollum. McCollum ended up going 10th to Portland and will be the focus of many Wolves fans who think Saunders made a mistake.
"We felt Shabazz was a better fit for us than C.J., really," Saunders said.
Saunders had said on Monday that the Wolves' depth at point guard meant he wouldn't take one, but he liked the Utah offer and decided to select Burke on the Jazz's behalf.
Muhammad likes the situation he will be stepping into. "I think I ended up in a really good situation for myself with Minnesota," Muhammad said. "I really think I can (make) an immediate impact with the team."
As far as his reputation, Muhammad talked with reporters after his workout in Minnesota this month about how he was working to repair how people felt about him. "I think I'm repairing it," he said Thursday. "I think I'm just having a really good attitude and everything."
In fairness, much of the baggage Muhammad will bring with him to Minnesota comes courtesy of his father. Holmes offer to employ Bensinger if he didn't write his story about Muhammad's age was the least of the issues. Holmes was indicated in May on a federal bank fraud and conspiracy changes.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the U.S. attorney's office was seeking to recover $2.5 million from Holmes and his associates. The indictment stated that Holmes and those working with him obtained "mortgage loans by fraudulent means to buy houses," from 2006 to 2009.
In 2000, Holmes had been sentenced to six months house arrest for fraud involving multiple mortgages in the Los Angeles area.
Holmes also found himself in hot water with the NCAA, which investigated the family before Muhammad played for the Bruins because they reportedly accepted benefits from several financial advisers. Muhammad ended up being suspended for three games to start last season and his family had to repay $1,600.
"When we sat down and talked to him, he owned up to anything in his previous history that he dealt with and a lot of that didn't have to do with him," Saunders said. "It had to do with some other people involved. AAU or his dad or whatever. I felt comfortable with that and not only did he own up to it but I felt that he had a little bit of his chip on his shoulder because of where everything was at. ... He's really a competitor and the number one thing he wants to do is he wants to win."