The Minnesota Timberwolves’ representatives in the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League finished 3-3, good enough for 11th of the 22 participating squads. They lost a close game to the D-League Selects, choked away a huge lead against the Phoenix Suns, beat the Heat by 9, took the Sacramento Kings out into the desert and left them there to die, fell to the D-Leaguers again, and concluded their showing with a come from behind victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. Kee Kee Clark led the team in scoring, Jack Sikma’s kid (Luke) got quite a bit of playing time, and Chris Johnson shot a lot of jumpers.
Those are some facts, and none of them matter. What matters is that Robbie Hummel may have played his way into the 15th roster spot, Gorgui Dieng played solid defense, and Shabazz Muhammad did some good things and some bad things. The 14th overall pick of the draft will be a polarizing figure until he becomes an All-Star, or until he washes out of the league in six years, or – if he falls somewhere in the middle – indefinitely. Summer League is only a marginal assessment of talent – the rosters are constructed hastily, the players practice as a group very little, and the whole experience is over in a week and a half.
During his time in Vegas, Muhammad shot 7-for-18 from beyond the arc (good), 6-for-17 from the free throw line (bad), and played more minutes than anyone else on the team. This analysis of his play will dive a little deeper than the raw numbers, however. There were five plays – some good, some bad, some good AND bad, that encapsulated Muhammad’s Summer League experience. Putting aside our preconceived notions, and all the baggage that accompanies Shabazz entering the NBA, may give us a better understanding of what the Timberwolves should expect from him during his rookie season.
The decisions a ball handler makes while on the perimeter, with under 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock, make or break many offensive possessions. Gunners like J.R. Smith or Monta Ellis love to have the ball in their hands in such circumstances, because what’s otherwise known as a bad shot (a hurried three, or a contested long two) turns into a necessary shot. Due to the fact that the clock is winding down, the player has a built-in excuse to jack it up. Muhammad was smeared as a selfish gunner based on his low assist totals during his one season at UCLA. (I won’t say who led this witch hunt, but their website rhymes with Heinous Poopus.)
If a gunner’s going to be a gunner, Summer League’s the place to do it. You have to stand out somehow, after all. So what did Shabazz Muhammad do when he found himself on the perimeter with the shot clock winding down?
Muhammad’s scoring instincts are undeniable. It’s taken Derrick Williams a long time to figure out how and when to cut – Muhammad’s already ahead of the third-year man in this department. Not all of his cuts work, but when they do, they lead to easy baskets. Well, they’re supposed to lead to easy baskets.
Piggybacking off the last bullet point, Muhammad had some issues finishing at the rim, especially in transition. While he drew a number of fouls, many of his misses came within 5 feet of the basket. His lack of passing ability on fastbreak possessions was also apparent – he looked uncomfortable with the ball in his hand leading the break. Some of the issues can probably be attributed to playing with a group of guys he’d met a week prior to suiting up. He also may have been trying to prove he could pass, as a response to his pre-Draft criticism (I hope not), or at the advice of his coaching staff (a more palatable alternative).
Most puzzling of all was Muhammad’s penchant for taking fastbreak jumpers from between 10 and 15 feet. Instead of driving hard to the rim, and initiating contact, he’d pull up and shoot a soft jumper, as you can see here:
For this play, at least, Muhammad showed a willingness to fight through screens and gave great defensive effort both on and off the ball. He had moments where he slagged off of his man, giving up easy threes, but the rest of his attributes on that end of the floor were hard to gauge, as the Wolves played a lot of hybrid zone. If he wants to be a plus perimeter defender, he must get quicker – but if he brings hustle like this on a nightly basis, he’ll be just fine.
Summer League performances, like spring training production in baseball, should be taken with a grain of salt. The only instances for alarm are when a valuable young rookie is injured, or if he looks completely lost for the entirety of the trip to Vegas. Even rookies who’ve dominated the Summer League in the past went through plenty of growing pains (Thomas Robinson in 2012, for instance). Nothing above should sway you, definitively, one way or the other on Shabazz Muhammad.
He functioned best as a spot-up shooter in the Summer League, as he did in college. He had trouble with some of the instincts of passing, as he did in college, but showed himself to be a willing passer, much to the naysayers’ dismay. Defensively, consistent effort will be key to Muhammad earning playing time – and the same holds true for every young player on every NBA roster.
What I took away from watching Shabazz in Vegas (his hometown, by the way) was a short checklist of things he needs to improve on – finishing at the rim, decision-making in transition, rebounding, passing. He’ll be something of a spark plug off the bench, and if he has a good work ethic – IF – he’s got the tools to be a solid role player, if not a bona fide starter.
I’d like to conclude with a non-sequitor: a brief analysis of Flip Saunders’ Vegas Summer League shirt game, in color, and with a pro and a con to boot.
Follow William Bohl on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle, email him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, or leave a comment below!