Before Shabazz Muhammad's 20-point outburst against the upstart Phoenix Suns, it would not have been crazy to think that the Minnesota Timberwolves forward would have spent most of his rookie season on the bench. The No. 14 pick out of UCLA had only played more than 20 minutes in one other game and only scored in double-digits once before Tuesday..
Before the draft, Doug Gottleib had warned GMs against taking him, saying that he was a "very average athlete" who was kind of small for a forwardand did not defend, rebound or pass the ball. There were off the court issues as well: The Los Angeles Times report that Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, had fudged his age, he was caught sulking when a teammate of his hit a game-winning shot. On top of that, Rick Adelman tends not to give rookies playing time right away.
But there Muhammad was, scoring at will against Phoenix, a Western Conference team that the Wolves need to pass in order to make the playoffs this year: 24:20 minutes played, 8-13 from the field and 20 points. All were career highs.
Adelman's hand was forced, of course, just as it had been with Derrick Williams a year ago. Last season, when a rash of injuries transformed the Wolves became basketball's version of The Walking Dead, Williams suddenly got a lot of playing time. Similarly, while Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio have dodged the injury bug this season, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and now Ronny Turiaf are sitting courtside in a suit and tie and Muhammad is getting more minutes.
Williams never found a role with Minnesota. He was too small to be a 4 in Adelman's system and didn't look natural at the 3 so hewas eventually shipped to the Sacramento Kings for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. It's easy to dismiss Williams as another failed draft pick, but he appears to be a fit in Sacramento where he's getting regular playing time and scoring with some regularity. Yes, it's easy to laugh at him when he misses a wide-open NBA Street-style off-the-backboard dunk, but it's harder to acknowledge that he scored 16 points when the Kings came to town and beat the Wolves in mid-January.
The difference between Williams and Muhammad is that Williams was drafted at No. 14 and Williams was selected No. 2 overall. It's easy to look back now and ask why the Wolves didn’t nab Klay Thompson, a Morris brother or Kawhi Leonard that year, but all four of those players were selected outside of the top 10. Williams was the consensus No. 2 pick and the only player to make it to an All-Star Game is Kyrie Irving, who went first overall.
Looking at the pick in context, there was no other viable option other than Williams unless the Wolves wanted to trade down. That's not the case with Muhammad: The Wolves chose to trade down in this case, dealing Trey Burke, the No. 9 pick, for picks No. 14 and No. 21. When a team selects a player later in the draft, they are looking for a fit and, according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, they were looking at Muhammad and Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk. When the Boston Celtics moved up to take Olynyk, Flip Saunders chose Muhammad.
That's the other key here: Saunders chose Muhammad. This wasn't David Kahn; this was Saunders, the beloved former coach, and should be judged accordingly. Saunders may not have known that Martin, Pekovic and Turiaf were going to go down, but Muhammad was the guy he selected, Burke was the guy he traded, and this isn't going to look good if the Wolves trade away Muhammad for cents on the dollar as they did with Williams.
Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.