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Timberwolves' Shabazz Muhammad: 'I believe I should be playing'

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Shabazz Muhammad (15) dribbles in the second quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Target Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 26, 2017. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — This was supposed to be Shabazz Muhammad's breakout season.

Sure, it was a disappointing offseason. After turning down a contract extension from the Timberwolves last fall, Muhammad entered free agency this summer expecting to cash in, but money dried up for most franchises and Muhammad was left with a few small-money offers.

No matter. Muhammad, 25, chose to come back to Minnesota on a one-year, minimum-salary deal with a chance to make the big bucks next offseason. The Wolves retained his Bird Rights, meaning they could go over the salary cap to give him his payday next summer. Everything was going to be fine. Maybe even better than that.

Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, was legitimately excited to get Muhammad back. He liked the forward's youth and felt Muhammad could take a big step forward. That belief was enhanced in training camp, which Muhammad entered in great physical shape. Muhammad poured in 22 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes in the Wolves' preseason opener against the Lakers. Asked about Muhammad's performance, Thibodeau smiled and said, "I've been telling you guys from the start of camp."

"He's always shown that he has ability and he's always provided a spark, but he's playing at such a high level right now and he's playing with such great intensity and he's doing it for an extended amount of time, too," Thibodeau said. "I think the fact that he's young, he's only going to get better and better."

Said Muhammad: "I think this is going to be a big year for me."

How quickly narratives can change. Less than three months later, Muhammad is enduring one of the most frustrating stretches of his career. The fifth-year forward has fallen entirely out of the Wolves' rotation.

Muhammad has not played in nine straight games, recording DNPs in 10 of the Wolves' past 11 contests. He noted he hasn't had anything like this happen to him since his rookie season, when he played in just 37 games (and just 38 the following season).

"I'm handling it alright," Muhammad said. "I'm working hard every day. ... I'm just trying to figure it out. It's kind of unusual not playing. I've been ready all season. So we'll see what happens, and hopefully something changes."

Muhammad opened the season with a stretch of poor play. In 22 games, he's shooting just 39 percent from the floor and 21 percent from 3-point range — both of which would be career-lows by a significant margin. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, a metric that estimates a player's "on-court impact on team performance," ranks Muhammad 449th out of 454 players this season, and the Wolves have been outscored by 21.1 points per 100 possessions when Muhammad has been on the floor.

Thibodeau seems likes a coach who values consistency and believes that repetition and familiarity breed success. So he's not one to be quick to mess with his rotations once they're set. But Muhammad's play seemed to force the coach's hand to the point where Thibodeau finally just dropped him — pushing Minnesota down to an eight-man rotation — and just recently started using Marcus Georges-Hunt ahead of Muhammad.

"This league is about opportunity, and if you're not getting your opportunity, then it sucks," Muhammad said. "You're sitting, and I believe I should be playing, so it's pretty frustrating."

Muhammad doesn't appear to be sulking, rather deciding to attempt to work his way back into the rotation. He's one of, if not the, last player on the court after practice each day, working with assistant coaches and getting up extra shots — something Muhammad has done throughout his career. Muhammad had made a point "to stay professional."

"I like getting extra work in," he said. "I feel like I'm 25 (years old), I've still got a long time in this league. That's one thing I've got to do is just get better day by day and whenever an opportunity presents itself, I'll be ready for it."

But Muhammad doesn't know when his next opportunity will come, which can be frustrating — particularly when you're trying to play for your next contract.

"But in this league, you can have 10 to 20 really good games just to truly show or solidify yourself for this summer for a contract, so that's something I'm not really worried about," Muhammad said. "We're still 30-something games in, and like I said, the biggest thing for me is just playing, and I just want to be out there and play, and that's the biggest thing. I've been working hard all summer, and I just want to play."