He was their most energetic, productive player way back when the Timberwolves held training camp in San Diego, but reserve forward Shabazz Muhammad has all but disappeared from coach Tom Thibdoeau’s rotation recently.
Thibodeau addressed an underperforming and/or underused bench by shortening it and relied mainly upon veteran Jamal Crawford and big man Gorgui Dieng while reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica’s foot injury lingers.
Muhammad, meanwhile, didn’t play in four of the past five games and played only seven-plus minutes combined in two others these past two weeks.
Thibodeau praised Muhammad’s versatility and called “huge” the free agent signing that brought him back for a fifth season. The Wolves convinced him just before training camp opened to forgo offers from the Los Angeles Lakers and others and accept a one-year minimum deal.
At the time, Muhammad weighed a lean 220 pounds, called himself in the best shape of his life and was pointed toward a season in which he could earn back from some team next summer some of the $40 million he turned down from the Wolves in fall of 2016.
Nearly three months later, Muhammad is averaging 4.0 points in 11.4 minutes a game, nearly half or less than his career average.
He’s also shooting 38.5 percent from the field, including 21.1 percent from three-point range (4-for-19).
“A little bit,” Muhammad said when asked if he feels pressure to play himself to a big payday next summer.
In turn, Thibodeau has looked elsewhere in his search for a more productive bench.
“Our bench has to play well,” Thibodeau said, “so we’re trying to see what we can do to get going.”
So Thibodeau has made his second unit — already missing Bjelica the past eight games — even shorter, and has asked his starters to do more.
Meanwhile, Muhammad has watched in their entirety games against New Orleans, Memphis and two against the Clippers while saying he is both frustrated and upbeat.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “I definitely played well in preseason. I think I’m going to get that back. I’ve been staying after [practice], getting up extra shots, getting my conditioning in, making sure my body is in tiptop shape so I can be ready. I feel really good. The best thing is to stay ready and stay in shape right now. I’ll wait for my number to be called. That’s the best thing I can do at this point. I’m watching the games, staying ready, waiting for Coach to call my name. That’s being a professional and that’s something I’ve got to go do.”
When asked if Muhammad’s absence is temporary, Thibodeau said, “We’ll see how it unfolds.”
The Wolves have other wing options — second-year forward Marcus Georges-Hunt, two-way contract player Anthony Brown — that Thibodeau hasn’t chosen to use yet. They also have two roster spots still open: A second two-way slot and the 15th spot on their big-league roster in which they could add a player(s) through a trade or signing.
Also, teams can trade players signed as free agents last summer starting Thursday, a date that usually produces at least a few transactions around the league. The Wolves and other NBA teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts in early January.
Thibodeau often says players need to do other things — rebound, pass, defend, run the floor — when their offense fails them. A scorer all his life, Muhammad hasn’t yet done those things enough to keep him on the floor.
“He’s got to keep working,” Thibodeau said, “and work his way out of it.”
Muhammad said such things are “something I’m learning to try to do,” but also said his game will turn around when he starts shooting better.
“If I start hitting a couple threes, my percentage will go up,” Muhammad said. “I think I’m in good shape. It’s easy to turn it around at this point for me.”