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D-league detour tests Muhammad

RENO

There were hotels to check out of and flights to catch. But virtually every NBA team had someone stick around the Reno Events Center on Thursday afternoon.

The D-League Showcase was wrapping up. And in the final game, the Iowa Energy had a 6-foot-6-inch guard who every scout and general manager was familiar with and curious to watch.

Shabazz Muhammad had spent his first two months in the NBA at the end of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ bench, playing garbage time minutes, if he played at all. But as a member of the NBA Development League’s Energy and participating in the Showcase, the 21-year-old from Bishop Gorman High School was getting a chance to prove he really wasn’t as bad as his NBA stats showed.

So the scouts stuck around. The game between Iowa and the Springfield Armor was less than two minutes old, and Muhammad already had five points, two rebounds and one steal — which basically equated to a month’s worth of work with the T-Wolves.

When it was over, his stat line read 22 points, 11 rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes of a 143-132 victory. It was an impressive encore from his D-League debut Tuesday, when he scored 24 points in 25 minutes in Iowa’s 133-121 victory over the Bakersfield Jam. His play earned him all-Showcase honors.

“I know everyone’s watching, and I have an opportunity to showcase my game,” Muhammad said before Thursday’s game.

The operative word is “showcase.” For Muhammad, a McDonald’s All-American at Gorman and a starter as a freshman at UCLA who left after one year and was taken with the 14th overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, the recent reassignment to the D-League was as brutal to his ego as stepping outside his Minneapolis apartment to face the chill of a winter’s morning.

Muhammad never had ridden the bench in his basketball life. But his development was atrophying night after night. He played in only 11 of Minnesota’s first 32 games and had not played more than 10 minutes in a game. His averages were 3.8 minutes and 1.1 points. He had zero assists.

He also was at the mercy of Rick Adelman, a veteran coach who is hesitant to give rookies a significant role. And with the revamped Timberwolves management in win-now mode, Adelman didn’t have the luxury to play Muhammad and live with his mistakes.

“It was a really tough situation,” Muhammad said. “It was frustrating, no question. Coach Adelman is old-school, and he doesn’t play rookies a lot right away, so I had to be patient.

“I understand where Coach Adelman is coming from, and he’s been very supportive of me. It’s not easy to get minutes when a veteran like Kevin Martin is on the roster, and Chase (Budinger) is coming back from his injury, that was more competition. But Coach Adelman talks to me all the time about staying focused, keep working on my game. It’s a much faster, more physical game. You’re playing against the best players every night.

“I thought I was ready to compete, but obviously I wasn’t.”

The Timberwolves thought they had a solution. Send Muhammad to the D-League, let him play and get his confidence back and see how it goes.

At first, Muhammad was resistant to the idea of what he perceived to be a demotion. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that this could be a good thing — if he took it in the proper perspective.

With the Energy, he would start and play significant minutes. He would get a chance to score and rebound. After a little soul-searching and talking to his parents, Ron and Faye, Muhammad decided he would embrace rather than resist the move.

He officially was reassigned to Iowa on Jan. 3, came to Reno and played well in the two games. He appeared to be having fun on the court and enjoying the experience.

Muhammad thought longer stints in the practice gym was the remedy for improvement. But there’s no substitute for game experience, and he simply wasn’t getting it with the Timberwolves. In the D-League, he’ll play plenty.

“It’s actually kinda cool knowing when you’re warming up that you’re going to play,” Muhammad said. “It was tough in the NBA when you’d warm up for a game and then you didn’t get in. That kinda sucked, so I’m enjoying this.”

Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren said Muhammad joined the team with the right attitude.

“Our guys knew he was an assignment player, and they welcomed him immediately,” Bjorkgren said. “You can see he’s a talented player. But I think his confidence took a hit in Minneapolis. Here, he has a chance to get his confidence back and re-establish himself as the kind of player we know he’s capable of being.”

Muhammad appeared engaged on the court. He was working hard, almost as if he had a chip on his shoulder, which he insists he doesn’t. But his competitiveness has allowed him to fit in with the Energy, a 12-5 team battling Rio Grande Valley for first place in the D-League’s Central Division.

“I owe it to these guys to give my best every day,” Muhammad said. “So far, it’s been a lot of fun. The guys have been great to play with and be around. I’m getting a chance to play again, so it has been great.”

And with playing time comes exposure. With NBA teams watching Muhammad in Reno, he might have impressed enough that someone becomes interested in trading for him.

In the NBA, anything’s possible. But Muhammad said he likes living in the Twin Cities. He said the fans have been supportive, and he is trying to become part of the community’s fabric by appearing at youth clinics and other functions.

“The people are great,” he said. “They’ve made me feel very welcome. I’m still trying to adjust to the cold weather. Being from Vegas, I’m not used to it being this cold.”

He said he hasn’t been told how long he’ll be with the Energy.

“I’m just going to keep playing hard as long as I’m here and try to help the team win,” he said.

Muhammad said his D-League experience, while humbling, also has been valuable in his maturation process.

“I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “Everything that went on at college. But I take stuff really good on the mental side. I think I’m more mature. I look at this as another challenge.

“This is my first year in the NBA. I’m very young. I know I can play in the league, and I know I’m going to get my opportunity sooner or later. I just have to stay patient with myself and keep working on getting better.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.

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