Shabazz Muhammad did not hit the beach this summer.
The past two offseasons Muhammad, the Wolves’ 6-6, 223-pound guard/forward, had spent a good chunk of time on Santa Monica Beach in California under the tutelage of Frank Matrisciano, the intense and unconventional trainer to the stars who likes to have his guys drag medicine balls up and down the stairs of the pier and run the beaches with weight-laden vests.
That beach training, at the time, was a good thing. Muhammad reported to camp the last two years ripped and explosive, lean and mean.
It’s just that, this year — his fourth in the NBA — Muhammad thought he needed to work on something else.
“I’ve been in L.A. doing a lot of basketball stuff,” he said. “More basketball stuff than running on the sand.”
This is a crucial season for Muhammad, who has shown that he can be a dynamic and prolific scorer in the right situation. With a work ethic that never has been questioned, Muhammad has shown the ability to be an explosive offensive rebounder who can hold his own against bigger players when attacking the rim.
He’s also proven to be an uneven performer. Especially on defense. And, with coach Tom Thibodeau taking over as president of basketball operations and head coach, that wasn’t going to fly.
And Muhammad knew it.
With the help of the coaching staff Muhammad has taken a crash course in defense, quickly learning just how much he didn’t know.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I already feel like I’ve gotten way smarter on defense with just the things Coach has been explaining to us. Just attention to detail, his defensive scheme. This is my fourth year and I’m getting the terms down.”
Film sessions helped
Shortly after Thibodeau took over, he and Muhammad talked. Thibodeau’s message: The defense has to improve. And so does the versatility. Determined to have a roster with position flexibility, Thibodeau told Muhammad to be ready to play shooting guard, small forward and even power forward in a small lineup.
So, this summer Muhammad worked on ball skills relentlessly and lifted weights incessantly.
And he also watched a lot of film, studying defense.
It was revealing. By Muhammad’s own admission, he had a long way to go, even when it came to something as basic as defensive rotations and his ability to recognize how to respond in certain situations.
“I think it has a lot to do with that,” Muhammad said. “I think the good thing about Coach is that he really goes into detail. That’s something all of us needed to learn. I think this will be a good opportunity to showcase my skills, especially on the defensive side. That’s what I’m focused on entering camp.”
But it’s been more than film study. He has worked on flexibility in his hips, something he said he needed to improve to defend better.
Before camp started Thibodeau was asked whether he saw Muhammad as an interesting offensive mismatch or a player who needed to play better defense to get on the floor.
“Both,” Thibodeau said. “I think he’s a great scorer. He can really score the ball. And I think he’s capable of playing very good defense.”
Back to basics
Muhammad languished on the bench a bit last year when then-coach Sam Mitchell became exasperated with his lack of defense, part of the reason for his offseason focus.
And, as Thibodeau said, it starts with basics. Sometime as simple, for example, as learning to close out on an opponent with balance so he can’t drive past you.
“The first step is to know what you have to do,” Thibodeau said. “He’s done a good job with that, and then you’re building your house. You start with individual fundamentals. You have to learn technique. He’s a terrific athlete. There’s no reason why he can’t be a good defender.”
As for offense? He needs more consistency there, as well.
His scoring average dropped from 13.5 to 10.5 last season. His shooting percentage dropped from 48.9 percent to 46.5. His three-point shot — key to his ability to stay on the floor — suffered, going from 39.2 percent in 2014-15 to 28.9 percent last season.
Muhammad worked on wing three-pointers over the summer, when he had a regimen of three workouts a day — two on the court and one on conditioning and weightlifting.
“Coach wants me to play two, three and a lot of four,” Muhammad said. “So I’m ready to play where they need me to play.”
How well he does that will determine his future with the team. The Wolves have to decide whether to re-sign both Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. They have until the end of the month to get something done. If they don’t, they have to wait until after the season.
“I think we’re still in the early phase of me having a better idea of who they are and who we are,” Thibodeau said. “But I like what they’ve shown so far, and I like them as players.”