PHOENIX -- Less than two years ago, Shabazz Muhammad was right next to Nerlens Noel atop high school recruiting rankings. He was a productive scorer at UCLA, but the story in college was always about Shabazz eventually entering the NBA draft.
In one year as a Bruin, Muhammad was briefly embroiled in a controversy over a Gucci backpack, and as the draft neared, it came to light that his father had lied about his son's age. After Muhammad was drafted by the Utah Jazz and traded on draft night to the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was kicked out of the rookie transition program.
The 14th overall pick has hardly hit the court as a rookie, but in the T-Wolves' last three games Muhammad has played double-figure minutes (he had only played two games of 10 or more minutes prior to the current stretch.) Coach Rick Adelman may have ushered Muhammad to a breakthrough moment on Tuesday night, when his rookie played wingman to Kevin Love as Minnesota topped the Phoenix Suns, 110-101.
"We had a guy step up in Shabazz," Love said. "That was big."
The performance wasn't what you'd expect from a rookie, but it sure helped Love's tremendous 33-point, 13-rebound, 9-assist night.
Muhammad succeeded by doing what he did best in college: playing physically on the offensive glass and attacking every chance he got. The 6'6, 222-pound forward made up for Minnesota's lack of scoring without guard Kevin Martin, but also the physicality missing with center Nikola Pekovic sidelined.
Muhammad scored 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, and grabbed three offensive boards that led to Timberwolves scores in the final 12 minutes.
"I really took advantage of the post and the stuff that I like to do," Muhammad said after the game. "My favorite part was the two big rebounds at the end to really try to secure the game for us. I'm just happy I'm finally getting some playing time. I've been staying after practice working with the coaches and it's really paying off for me."
Thirty seconds into the fourth quarter, Muhammad grabbed an offensive rebound over Gerald Green for a put-back. Phoenix finally caught wind of Muhammad and moved their best perimeter defender and an imposing physical presence himself, P.J. Tucker, onto the rookie.
It didn't do much.
With less than two minutes to play and Minnesota leading 100-97, Muhammad defended then rebounded a Tucker tip-in attempt, and though Love missed a three on the other end, the rookie chased after the offensive board and found a cutting Corey Brewer for a layup. Muhammad grabbed a defensive rebound a minute later that led to a Love three-pointer, the dagger to give the T-Wolves a 10-point lead with 50 seconds left in the game.
"He was terrific," Adelman said of his rookie. "What I liked about him was he just stayed within his strengths. He rebounded the ball, he posted up, big rebounds in the fourth quarter. That's what he can do."
Muhammad got going in the first half with a back-cut and dunk against Suns rookie Archie Goodwin. He then got physical, drawing two fouls on small forward Marcus Morris from the post, scoring off a steal in transition, then shedding Green for a bank shot. His last basket of the night came in transition, when he took a foul from Suns guard Goran Dragic and finished to bring Minnesota within one point, 91-90, with fewer than six minutes to play.
The Timberwolves rookie went 8-for-13 from the game, and only one attempt came outside 12 feet.
Dragic would foul out a few minutes later, and the T-Wolves' defense, Muhammad included, held Phoenix to 0-of-8 shooting in the final three minutes.
It was one game, but an important win for the 28-29 Timberwolves against a team clinging to the eighth seed in the playoffs. If Muhammad can continue to provide bits of what he did Tuesday night during another injury-decimated season in Minnesota, the T-Wolves might have a better chance at making the playoffs than appearances suggest.