Can Shabazz Muhammad Spark the Minnesota Timberwolves into the Playoffs?

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIFebruary 26, 2014

Feb 8, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Shabazz Muhammad (15) moves to the basket around Portland Trail Blazers forward Dorell Wright (1) in the second quarter at Target Center.  The Trail Blazers defeated the Wolves  117-110.  Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been searching for any type of catalyst that can spur the team to a playoff appearance in the loaded Western Conference. Is it possible that rookie forward Shabazz Muhammad can be that guy?

The former UCLA standout entered the Feb. 25 matchup with the Phoenix Suns averaging 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds and 0.1 assists to go with a player efficiency rating of 6.6—a PER that ranked him behind 402 other NBA players.

Muhammad had appeared in just 20 games prior to the conference showdown against Phoenix, playing 5.8 minutes per contest. With 24 minutes of action against the upstart Suns, however, he embraced the opportunity in a big way.

The T-Wolves rookie scored a career-high 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting to accompany six rebounds and two steals. He attacked the rim with fervor, finished at the basket through contact and looked genuinely comfortable on the court for the first time in his NBA career.

Kevin Love displayed his usual dominance by posting 33 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, while point guard Ricky Rubio dished out 11 dimes to go with seven points and a nifty highlight layup. The Timberwolves, however, needed an additional spark.

Muhammad provided it.

"He was terrific," head coach Rick Adelman said of the 21-year-old's performance, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "You have to give him all the credit in the world. He kept working and working and working."

The youngster experienced a rough start to his professional career when he was sent home from the NBA's Rookie Transition Program for bringing a female guest to his hotel room, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt.

The incident certainly didn't help him get off on the right foot, as he played just 24 total minutes for Minnesota during the month of November—matching his single-game minute total against the Suns.

"I'm just happy I'm finally getting some playing time," Muhammad said after his career night, per the AP. "I've been staying after practice working with the coaches and it's really paying off for me."

Muhammad was sent to the NBA Development League in January in order to aid his development by playing more minutes. In four games played for the Iowa Energy before getting recalled, he dominated by scoring 24.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting to go with 9.8 rebounds, per ESPN.

Muhammad clearly has the talent necessary to compete at the highest level. At this point, his success may simply hinge on gaining more confidence.

The 6’6” forward played 22 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 23 but couldn't get anything going offensively. He finished just 1-of-8 from the field for two points but did add seven rebounds to the box score.

Plenty of role players around the Association can luck into a good performance when things go their way, but Muhammad's showing against Phoenix hinted at something more. His physicality oozed an air of confidence, and because guys like Love draw so much attention, he was able to pick his spots and let the game come to him.

If he continues to receive consistent minutes as he carves a niche on this team, Muhammad would certainly help shore up Minny's lackluster second unit.

According to Hoops Stats, the Timberwolves bench scores 26 points per game—tied for 25th in the league. Muhammad scored 20 points off the sidelines all by his lonesome on Tuesday.

The bench hasn't been able to take any pressure off the starters in 2013-14, and unlike other teams with poor bench production (Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers), it's forced Minnesota to compile a sub-.500 record.

Still, the 28-29 T-Wolves are just four games behind the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies and 5.5 games back of the No. 8 Phoenix Suns (whom they just beat on the road).

The Timberwolves will have an uphill battle to climb, to be sure. They're still waiting for 285-pound center Nikola Pekovic to return after being diagnosed with bursitis in his right ankle in late January. The big man has now missed 13 straight games dating back to Jan. 29.

Jan 12, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) shoots while being defended by Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

If, however, the young rookie can continue to contribute in Adelman's rotation, then the coach will have another weapon at his disposal when Pek makes his comeback.

The Suns will face a relatively easy second-half schedule, but 15 of their 26 remaining games will be played on the road (where they're 14-12).

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have been on a tear since getting Marc Gasol back from injury. They've amassed a 14-5 record during that stretch. However, they'll have to face the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat (twice) and Trail Blazers (twice) moving forward. Those aren't easy matchups, to say the least.

Does that open the window wide enough for the T-Wolves to have a legitimate playoff shot? Well, if Muhammad continues to build off the best performance of his young career, it will be hard to rule Minny out down the stretch.

This team is hungry for a playoff berth, but it's on the players to go out and earn it. Perhaps Muhammad can be the spark that gets them where they want to be.