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Can Shabazz Muhammad sustain positive play?

As he fights for the final roster spot in training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks, can Shabazz Muhammad sustain the signs of positive play he provided late last season?

Shabazz Muhammad enters training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks with his NBA future very much uncertain.

Alongside Christian Wood and Tim Frazier, Muhammad will be battling it out in the hopes of displacing the incumbent Tyler Zeller, and earning a place on the Bucks’ regular season roster.

Away from the obvious elements of uncertainty surrounding the direction of the 25-year-old’s career, there are other questions for Muhammad to wrestle with and overcome, though.

Playing 15 games between the regular season and playoffs combined, Muhammad’s late season arrival in Milwaukee last year provided him with opportunities that hadn’t been there for him in his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Even more importantly, though, that run saw Muhammad outperform all expectations, as he became a useful bench contributor, and thrived in a variety of ways that weren’t necessarily associated with his play in his career up until that point.

Muhammad functioned as the kind of sparkplug offensive presence that he’s always tried to be, but in giving the Bucks bench a more than welcome scoring boost, he also demonstrated surprising efficiency.

Albeit in a small sample size, Muhammad averaged 8.5 points per game on shooting splits of .552/.375/.895, while also providing value as a rebounding live wire and a refreshingly locked in defender.

It’s fair to say the Bucks, under the guidance of Joe Prunty, eventually leaned too heavily on Muhammad, but in his brief time with the team he had done enough to at least earn the opportunity for a taste of playoff action.

The difficulty in mapping out a potential future with the Bucks for Muhammad comes in trying to establish if any of his positive play is truly sustainable.

With Mike Budenholzer now in the role of head coach, and with a much more coherent system in place, there’s a strong case to be made for what Muhammad could possibly achieve in a structured environment that more effectively harnesses his abilities. Dating back to his time at UCLA, Muhammad’s ability and scoring instincts have never really been up for debate.

With a five-year portfolio of NBA performances to reflect upon, part of the issue with Muhammad may be whether his game can even be harnessed.

If he is to stick with the Bucks, there are at least certain elements of Muhammad’s brief success in 2017-18 that will have to be present, and even more so will likely have to stand out in training camp and the preseason.

As a career 31.9 percent three-point shooter, even over a brief period of time, there was something jarring about Muhammad’s relative success from beyond the arc with the Bucks. On a Budenholzer-coached team that shooting will be even more essential, making Muhammad’s ability to knock down the long-ball at even an average rate a potential make or break attribute for his chances at a spot on the final roster.

Speaking at exit interviews at the end of last season, Muhammad stressed his desire to continue to fine-tune that element of his game:

“I think I’ll work on my three-point shot more, to stretch the defense out. The biggest thing for us with Boston was they wanted us to shoot a lot of threes. And we’re a transition team, and they kind of clogged it all up in there, and we had some struggles trying to shoot the three ball. That’s something I need to work on.”

Beyond improving his shooting, Muhammad also needs to minimize the number of dead possessions that end with him when he’s on the floor. That will require him to move the ball more frequently than he’s necessarily been accustomed to, but also valuing possession. By the nature of his play style, Muhammad will have bouts of inefficiency when it comes to his shot, which makes avoiding turnovers a must for him to stay on the floor.

That was an area where he excelled with the Bucks last season, registering just a single turnover in 117 regular season minutes, which equated to an impressive assist to turnover ratio of 7.0.

Speaking at Media Day on Monday, Muhammad shared his hope that his familiarity with the Bucks could give him an advantage and allow him to hit the ground running:

“I was here when we played in the playoffs against Boston, and I thought it was a great run for us. Obviously, we have a different coaching staff now, but it’s the same group of guys, and I’m just happy to be here with these guys. They all work hard and are all good people, so that’s something that’s a little bit easier for me as I’ve worked with a lot of these guys and have a relationship with them already.”

Perhaps that will play out for him, and there’s no reason to believe Muhammad can’t do the small things that could make him a valuable role player for the Bucks. Still, the onus is on him to prove that and to overcome the perception his play has formed up until this point.

When considering his rivals for Milwaukee’s final roster spot, Muhammad should have an inherent advantage. With a log-jam in the frontcourt, adding more big men, whether Zeller or Wood, doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of providing a logical balance to the roster. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova leave the Bucks well-stocked at point guard too, making the addition of Tim Frazier similarly unnecessary in a lot of ways.

Muhammad may not be as versatile as Joe Prunty tried to make him last season — he shouldn’t be playing at shooting guard — but as a forward his positional range does offer Milwaukee greater options in line with the more fluid lineups of the modern NBA.

Next: Can Ersan Ilyasova maintain his shooting consistency?

To have the chance to put that in action in the NBA this season, Muhammad will still have to prove a lot of people wrong, and importantly prove his worth to a new staff who haven’t already had the luxury of being impressed by his contributions.

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