Coming into the season, there was a large faction of Timberwolves fans that believed Shabazz Muhammad was poised for a breakout season if he could just stay healthy.
In 2014-15, Muhammad earned 15 minutes per game more than he did in his rookie year and took full advantage of that, bumping up his scoring by nearly 10 points per game while increasing all of his shooting percentages, including a 12 percent spike in his three-point shooting. Maintaining efficiency while seeing such a large increase in usage is tough for most players, so for Muhammad to increase his efficiency was incredible.
Muhammad was a revelation in his increased time after Flip Saunders took over as coach, but injuries limited him to just 38 games after he only appeared in 37 contests during his rookie year. Fans saw his potential and lamented that if he could just stay healthy, he could be a big time scorer off the bench.
Well, Muhammad was able to stay healthy throughout 2015-16, playing in all 82 games. He saw his minutes dip by about two per game, but he still averaged a decent 20.5 minutes per contest. However, his play did not nearly match the expectations fans had for him coming into the season.
Muhammad’s scoring fell by three points per game and his three-point shooting fell almost all the way back to his rookie season level, even as he was taking threes at a higher rate than in his first two seasons combined.
On the plus side, he continued to increase his two-point field goal percentage, showing that he’s still capable of driving to the rim or taking it to smaller wings in the post. He also increased his free throw percentage by five points to get it up to 76.4 percent. Shabazz has increased his free throw percentage by over 11 percent in the two seasons since his rookie season, a testament to how much time and effort he spends on improving his game.
There is still one elephant in the room when it comes to Muhammad, though, and that’s his defense. Among 462 qualified players this season, Shabazz ranked 461st in ESPN’s “Defensive Real Plus-Minus” statistic, ahead of only J.J. Barea. This stat takes teammates, opponents, and other factors into account, so the fact that Muhammad rated so poorly is very concerning.
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There are a few things that make me question that ranking, however. First, Andrew Wiggins ranks 400th and Karl-Anthony Towns is 226th. Wiggins isn’t always locked-in on defense, but to group him in the worst 15 percent of defenders is lunacy. And Towns at 226? There may not be 50 better defenders than Towns in the league, much less 225.
Secondly, while Muhammad does struggle on defense, he certainly doesn’t seem like virtually the worst defender in the NBA when watching the games. Like all young players, Shabazz can go through lapses in attention off the ball and allow his man an easy back cut for a layup. On-ball, though, he shows that he has enough lateral movement and tenacity to stay with guys and keep them from going right by him most of the time.
Lastly, Shabazz doesn’t pick up a whole lot of steals (0.3 per game) or blocks (0.1), which likely keeps his rating low. Shabazz isn’t even a league-average defender, but to say that he’s the second-worst in the league seems a bit extreme.
The dynamic between Tom Thibodeau and Muhammad is going to be a compelling storyline next season. If Thibs is able to coax consistent effort and attention out of him on the defensive end, then there will be nothing to worry about. If, however, Muhammad doesn’t provide the type of defense that Thibs is looking for, how long of a leash will he have? Shabazz is instant offense off the bench, but with Thibs’ emphasis on defense, how much is he willing to sacrifice for that boost in offense?
Muhammad should be able to fix his three-point shooting and be one of the better sixth or seventh men in the league again next season. He’s shown that he’s willing to put in work in the off-season, and I figure most of his focus this year will be on hitting those threes.
Thibs should make a huge impact on Muhammad’s defense and will put him in position to succeed on offense. For yet another year, Muhammad will go into next season with big expectations from fans. Hopefully, for the first time in his career, he is able to both stay healthy and deliver on those expectations.