LAS VEGAS (AP) — As hard as the start of his NBA career has been, Shabazz Muhammad wouldn't have it any other way.
The rookie swingman for the Minnesota Timberwolves got off to a quiet start in his first two games in the NBA summer league, averaging 7.5 points in 24 minutes while shooting 6 of 16 from the field.
It's a big difference, from playing with boys to men, as he found out Monday as the Phoenix Suns squad overcame a 24-point deficit and closed on a 10-2 run thanks in part to a turnover by Muhammad. With the score tied at 89 and 3.3 seconds remaining in the game, Marcus Morris took a sideline inbounds pass, dribbled twice and nailed a jumper just in front of Phoenix's bench.
Moments earlier, the spotlight was on Muhammad. And while taking an inbounds pass, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward fumbled the ball away.
"It was a hard one for us today, we were up (big) and gave up the lead and it just didn't go our way tonight," Muhammad said. "I tried to get on the floor and it didn't do my way, some plays go like that. We want to win. This is hard; this feels like a real game. You see the environment over here; everybody is pretty upset, as I am."
Nevertheless, with all he has been through since the days he played AAU basketball, through his short-lived career at UCLA and plenty of off-court distractions surrounding his father, Muhammad is exactly where he wants to be.
"It's hard on me, I'm a young guy trying to figure it out," Muhammad said. "(But) my confidence level is always high. There are a lot of good guys in the summer league, and I'm just going to continue to do what I've got to do and just play a little bit better."
When Muhammad arrived at UCLA last year, he was expected to help lead the Bruins back to glory. But he had to sit out the first three games of the season and repay $1,600 in impermissible benefits after the NCAA and UCLA found Muhammad accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina, travel arrangements made by his father, Ron Holmes.
It was also revealed in a Los Angeles Times story in March that Holmes shaved a year off of his son's age when he was young to give Muhammad an advantage against younger competition on the summer AAU circuit and in high school. Holmes also ran into trouble of his own with the law.
Minnesota summer league coach David Adelman, son of Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, said the team's first-round draft pick may find things easier in the NBA.
"In some ways," Adelman said, "I hope this is kind of a breath of fresh of air, like: 'You've made it, you're in the NBA and now let's just learn the NBA game and get better every day and there's nothing to prove.' We just want him to get better every day. His attitude has been very forthright and he just wants to learn."
Adelman said Muhammad needs to improve his physicality and ball handling.
"In the NBA, the guys, they range from being so big, or so quick, or so physical," Adelman said. "And every night you have to have a different game in how you play. I think that's something that's going to grow. I think he's always been the strongest guy, and a lot of guys are like that when they come into the NBA. Now it's a matter of how do you change up your game night to night with the matchups you have."
Muhammad said summer league assistant coach Shawn Respert has been instrumental in working with him daily.
"I love that he has a tremendous motor and great knack to compete," Respert said. "Until he learns some of our system and some of the progression we have in our offense, he's got to just slow down a little bit, and that way his brain can just process what we're trying to accomplish after the first option, and to the second and third options of our plays. And then when he gets that down, he can speed up again."
Perhaps slowing down a bit might have helped on that sideline with less than 8 seconds left against the Suns on Monday, but Adelman doesn't regret drawing up the play for the young star.
"I think Shabazz has been through a lot the last year, where this is just one day and he'll forget about it," Adelman said. "We gave him the ball because we trust him. ... It was unfortunate, he lost control of the ball. That stuff happens to better and worse players than him. It's a summer league; he's going to learn a lot from it."