As a smiling Shabazz Muhammad stood on the Target Center stage Friday clutching his No. 0 Timberwolves jersey — a number he selected because few others in the NBA wear it — the guy who thrives on being the center of attention appeared to be relishing every minute of his first full day as a professional.
Thought by many to be the best player in the nation coming out of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, Muhammad was sought by just about every premier college basketball program before deciding to play at UCLA.
One year later, there’s a sense from Timberwolves fans that Muhammad — and the potential baggage that comes with him — might not be as warmly welcomed.
Flip Saunders, the Wolves president of basketball operations, refuted claims that he was disappointed in how the Timberwolves fared in Thursday night’s draft, when they traded the ninth overall pick to the Utah Jazz and selected Muhammad 14th overall. Still, Saunders couldn’t shy away from the fact that selecting Muhammad wasn’t exactly part of the initial plan.
“Our guys at No. 9 were off the board. We thought one of them would be there,” Saunders said Thursday after the first round of the NBA draft. “You’ve got to own up to the picks you make, and I feel at that pick, that was the best pick we could make.”
Muhammad comes to Minnesota with the reputation of being a selfish player, something he said he plans to work on as he transitions from college to the NBA. The 6-6 guard/forward had only 27 assists in 32 games with the UCLA, and he was vilified online after he seemed to pout when teammate Larry Drew took, and made, a game-winning shot in a 59-57 victory over Washington in early February.
To Ben Howland, who coached UCLA for 10 seasons before being fired in March, Muhammad’s desire to be the best is a positive, making his former player a great fit for the Wolves, he said.
“The thing I love about him most is his game rises up when the lights go on,” Howland said. “He loves to win and he hates to lose. Losing kills him, whether it’s in practice, a drill, whatever it is. And that’s what you want. You want guys that are competitive and very driven.”
Muhammad, whose path to basketball stardom was essentially mapped out by his father, Ronald Holmes, from a young age, sat out of his first three games as a Bruin while the NCAA investigated a possible rules violation.
The NCAA eventually determined that Muhammad had received unallowed travel expenses during unofficial visits in his recruitment process, but Muhammad’s eligibility was reinstated after an appeal from UCLA. Later in the season, the Los Angeles Times discovered that Muhammad, said to be 19, was actually 20.
With Holmes at the center of much of the drama that surrounded his son, Muhammad said he sat his father down a month ago and told him to stay out of his basketball career. It was a tough thing to do, Muhammad conceded, but something he felt was necessary as he prepared to take the next step.
“There were some slip-ups with him. We definitely talked about that,” Muhammad said Friday. “My dad’s a great guy, but with basketball, we don’t really talk about it. He’s just a dad helping me out with life now.”
Despite the controversy, Muhammad led UCLA in scoring last season, averaging almost 18 points per game, and led the Bruins to a Pacific-12 title.
Before the NBA draft, Muhammad told reporters he thought he was the best player in this year’s draft class. On Friday, despite having been picked 14th overall the day before, Muhammad made it clear his opinion hadn’t changed.
“Oh yeah, I definitely think [so],” said Muhammad, without hesitation. “Everybody said I was the steal of the draft. But you can’t just say that, you’ve got to go out and work.”
Muhammad is well aware that his selection by the Wolves wasn’t popular with fans. But he isn’t lacking in confidence. Because of that, he’s sure that the sentiments will soon change.
“If I’m staying in the gym and I’m working and we’re winning games, that’s how you please the fans,” Muhammad said. “I love changing people’s opinions.”