How Shabazz Muhammad Is Shedding His Bust Label
There's no real statistic for this, but I'd be willing to bet that Shabazz Muhammad is a name that not many casual NBA fans know -- despite being a topic of interest in the past for various reasons.
During his college days, he underwent scrutiny when reports surfaced that his father had claimed he was a year younger than he actually was, making him appear more physically dominant than his peers.
Muhammad had been pegged as a top-three draft pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and did end up one of the better scorers in the Pac-12 during his lone season at UCLA in 2012-13, but he fell to 14th in the draft that year and might actually be best known at this point for being swapped along with Gorgui Dieng to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Trey Burke, now of the Utah Jazz, on a draft-night trade.
Muhammad's first year in Minnesota added to the downward trajectory, sending him toward "bust" status. He played just 7.8 minutes per game in just 37 contests and also had a stint in the D-League.
Despite all of this, Muhammad is trending upward this year, and if he can continue that, he might turn into the talent -- or at least a respectable portion of it -- that most thought he was destined to be.
The Formative Year
At UCLA, Muhammad put up some solid scoring numbers. His 17.9 points per game ranked fourth in the Pac-12, and his usage percentage -- the possessions that ended with a player such as a shot or turnover -- of 29.8 was second in the conference.
So he had the ball in his hands a lot, and he ranked second in the conference in turnover percentage -- in a good way. He rarely turned the ball over, which is good, right?
Well, anyone who knows about Muhammad at UCLA understands why I'm hinting at something.
In his 32 games -- with a sky high usage rate -- Muhammad tallied only 27 assists all year. That's 0.8 per game.
It's much harder to turn it over if you don't pass.
What about his play this year, then, is promising? Is it just the scoring?
Last year, Muhammad was a non-factor by most accounts, but according to our metrics, he was actually a slight detriment to Minnesota. According to his nERD -- which indicates how many wins a player would add to a team as a starter -- Muhammad would have lost the Timberwolves 0.6 wins over the duration of the season.
For context, of the 52 players who totaled between 200 and 400 minutes last year, Muhammad's nERD ranked 26th. As for our numberFire efficiency metric -- which indicates point differential a player would add as a starter -- he also happened to rank 26th.
Muhammad, in 290 minutes and with a very respectable usage rate of 23.1, tallied only 6 assists last year.
This year, the assist numbers haven't exactly skyrocketed, but his usage and assists are up by a smidgeon, and his turnovers have stayed low, too.
Here are some of his advanced stats from this year and last for some comparison.
So, Muhammad's usage is up, like I said, and he is scoring 13.4 points per game as a result -- with an effective field goal percentage of 52.0. His turnovers and assists are trending in the right direction. Muhammad actually ranks sixth in the NBA in turnover percentage this year but does still rack up only 1.0 assist per game, which is still not exactly promising.
Still, his overall productivity -- measured by his win shares (WS in the table), nERD, and nF Efficiency -- has improved.
Last year, Muhammad ranked 216th in the league in nERD among players with at least 200 minutes played (incidentally, directly behind Joe Johnson, for context) but is at 68th this year. That's surely not an elite number by any stretch, but only Muhammad, Dieng (2.7), and Kevin Martin (2.2) have nERD scores better than 0.0 this year for the T'Wolves. Martin, of course, hasn't played in more than a month.
Muhammad is trending in the right direction even though Minnesota as a team ranks ahead of only the 76ers in our power rankings, which are reflective of team nERD overall. Relative to the rest of the roster, the organization and fans alike should be feeling good about Muhammad's 2014-15 campaign despite his averaging around only 20 minutes per contest.
After dealing Kevin Love, the Timberwolves had to know that they wouldn't be immediate contenders -- or contenders any time soon -- especially because they never had a team in place to make a serious run since Kevin Garnett willed it to be so back in 2003-04.
However, Muhammad's steady emergence has allowed the team to trade Corey Brewer, whose nERD is currently -5.7, and to have some semblance of efficiency while Anthony Bennett (-3.8 nERD) collects roughly 17 minutes per game and Andrew Wiggins (-12.9) sees over 30 minutes per contest. In addition, Thaddeus Young (-8.5), Zach LaVine (-10.8), and Wiggins rank in the bottom 10 in the entire NBA in nERD, with Wiggins in last.
Oh, and as for Burke, for whom Muhammad and Dieng were traded? His nERD of -10.7 is fifth-worst in the league.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, currently 5-22 on the year, they can't do much else but bide some time and build for the future while Ricky Rubio (-1.2), Nikola Pekovic (-0.9), and Martin (2.2) recover from their injuries.
Amidst turmoil, chaos, and just overall unpromising basketball in the state of Minnesota, Muhammad is quietly piecing together a season that could grant him a reversal of fortunes for his basketball future and for the future of the franchise.