RENO, Nev. – Shabazz Muhammad ran onto the floor Tuesday wearing a NBA Development League uniform. The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie played in this minor league venue was during the Nevada high school championship game two years ago. He is the only lottery pick from the 2013 NBA draft to take part in the D-League Showcase this week.
Muhammad initially saw his D-League demotion as the most humbling news of his trying rookie season. But after playing in his first game with the Iowa Energy, he soon realized this could be the confidence boost he needs.
"Nobody dreams about being in the D-League. They dream about being in the NBA," Muhammad said after scoring 24 points to lead Iowa to a 133-121 victory over Bakersfield. "But I'm being strong mentally. I'm playing hard and going out there trying to do the best I can.
"I let it bother me for a couple of days. But after I saw how much I was playing, I just decided to use it as a positive. I'm going to get a couple of games under my belt. This is a good opportunity for me."
Muhammad isn't the first lottery pick to play in the D-League, but few have had as notable a background. He was MVP of the 2012 McDonald's All-American Game and was often considered the top high school player of his class. He signed with UCLA and entered his freshman season projected as a possible top pick in the 2013 NBA draft. After a three-game suspension for receiving impermissible benefits, he averaged 17.9 points for the Bruins.
"There's always pressure being the No. 1 player in high school and then being a top college guy," Muhammad said. "There are always people wondering what I am doing."
Muhammad's draft stock slid, however, and the T'wolves took him 14th overall. He didn't play well in the NBA's summer league after the draft, averaging 8.5 points and 2.2 rebounds while shooting 36.5 percent. He was then sent home from the NBA's rookie orientation program for reportedly bringing a female guest to his room.
Muhammad arrived in Minneapolis having played in every basketball game he had ever suited up for. But on the T'wolves' opening night, he didn't take the court in a victory over the Orlando Magic. He has played in just 11 games, all of which saw him on the floor for no more than 10 minutes. His NBA career-high in scoring is four points against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 4.
"The first time I didn't play, I was kind of uncertain," Muhammad said. "Then it started happening continuously. That meant I needed to get in the gym more. I've been going to the gym twice, three times a day to work on my game."
The Wolves told Muhammad on Dec. 3 they planned to send him to the D-League in time for the Showcase in Reno.
"There has been a lot of hate on Twitter and all that kind of stuff," Muhammad said. "I'm not really trying to pay attention to it. I just went out here [with the Energy] and didn't mope or have an attitude. I went out here with a smile and to help my teammates I have right now to win.
"When you're on top, everyone is on you. And then when you come down … I've been the king of that throughout my career and it's something I'm used to."
T'wolves general manager Milt Newton said the plan is for Muhammad to go to the Energy for four to five games and compete and play within the offense and concept of the team.
"I definitely need this," Muhammad said. "People have been saying I can't jump now, and one thing I've been working on is my athletic ability. I've been staying in the gym back in Minnesota working on my vertical [leap] and my ball-handling. I think it came out for me today."
The D-League is far from glamorous, but Muhammad hopes to leave as an improved player.
"From this experience I'm getting confidence," Muhammad said. "I want to go back and play with the Wolves with some confidence and be a scoring threat for our team."