Shabazz Muhammad has had a fascinating if frustrating career so far. He barely played during his rookie season despite being healthy for most of it and wasn’t particularly good when he did. Then in the offseason he lost weight, improved his shot and became a solid contributor before injuries derailed his progress.
Now as he enters his third year, he’ll face a new challenge. The Timberwolves reportedly expect him to move up and down from shooting guard to small forward and even power forward. It’s a daunting task not many players are cut out for, but he does seem to have the tools to be successful in all those positions, which could make him a part of Minnesota’s core as well as a deadly role player in the modern NBA.
Muhammad displayed a rare skill last year. He was among the most efficient post players in the league, ranking fourth in points per possession among wings (min. 100 possessions), per Synergy. At 227 pounds with a low center of gravity and long arms, he has a size advantage over most perimeter players. His lefty hook was unguardable at times for players who are just not used to battling in the post:
On its own, the ability to score on the block isn’t that valuable in the modern game, especially for a wing. What made Muhammad’s sophomore season so intriguing is that in an admittedly small sample size, he shot 39 percent on three-pointers and showed the ability to score in isolation situations. If those skills are truly in his bag of tricks, he could be a matchup nightmare on offense.
Granted, it’s hard to trust his range. He shot a solid 38 percent from outside in college but has attempted just 62 three-pointers in two years in the league. Defenses didn’t respect him, so he feasted on wide open looks last season, which simply won’t be there if he keeps connecting on them:
That being said, his release doesn’t look bad and he doesn’t need to shoot 40 percent to be a valuable offensive player. He just needs to shoot around the league’s average from beyond the arc to keep the defense honest.
His ability to score on isolation seems more reliable. No team would be great on offense with him as its primary scoring threat, but he can hurt opponents that try to hide weak defenders on him. Muhammad is strong enough to finish through contact and, if he’s really slimmed down as reported, he should be able to take bigger players off the dribble:
Post scoring, three-point spot-up shooting and isolation scoring: those three offensive skills — along with his physical tools — make the Timberwolves’ plans to try Muhammad at three different positions look reasonable.
When he’s at the wing next to Andrew Wiggins filling in as nominal shooting guard, he’ll draw the lesser defensive player. He should be able to have his way with his defender in the post, especially if his right-handed hook is as improved as he says it is.
If he’s filling in at small forward next to a playmaking guard and a scoring big man, his spot-up shooting should keep the floor balanced and spaced while also providing a secondary scoring presence if needed.
If the Wolves go small with Muhammad at power forward, he should be able to attack his defender in space, whether it’s in isolation situations or after closeouts. He doesn’t have the quickest first step but is plenty explosive to get past big men.
That type of versatility could turn Muhammad into a potential starter or a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. More importantly for the Timberwolves, he could become a crucial cog in the rebuilding effort if he proves able to fill in where needed. His age will allow him to grow next to Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns while his “jack of all trades, master of none” skill set should keep him from getting a prohibitively high salary.
Of course, the question for Muhammad is the same any player who moves up and down position always gets: can he defend anyone? There’s not a big enough sample size to determine that yet, but how he takes care of his body could be key. Muhammad’s weight has fluctuated in the past and that can’t keep happening. If he slims down too much he’ll lose his strength advantage, and if he gains weight too quickly he might lose his explosiveness. Finding that balance will be tough but absolutely necessary for him to maximize his strengths and hide his weaknesses as a defender.
As it happens with every young player who hasn’t been on the court enough to show how good he truly is, Muhammad is full of potential right now. After next season, the thought of him being able to play three positions could be laughable. If the injury issues persist, he could even see Minnesota passing on his contract option. There are no guarantees the experiment will work out and Muhammad will thrive in that new role.
For now, however, he looks like a long-term piece, someone who without having the tools to reach stardom has the complementary skill set to help others do it. The Timberwolves have a nice young core full of talented prospects, and Muhammad could easily be a part of it if the production he showed last season proves sustainable.