Though he hasn’t had a remarkable rookie season, the Nuggets struck gold with Emmanuel Mudiay.
At one point, Emmanuel Mudiay was projected to be the top draft pick from the 2015 lottery. Now, he’s the rookie that no one is talking about because of his struggle to adjust to the NBA.
Mudiay was a McDonald’s All-American at Prime Prep Academy in Dallas and on his way to being coached by legendary point guard guru Larry Brown at Southern Methodist University. Under Brown’s tutelage, he would solidify his reputation as the top guard in 2015. Said Brown,
“He’s the most special point guard I’ve ever seen at that age. He’s played the right way, and God has given him incredible gifts. We all know [the NBA is] a point guard’s league.”
But, like in many other instances in his life, things changed unexpectedly. Mudiay ended up reneging his commitment, opting instead to play overseas in order to support his struggling mother. At just 18 years old, he signed a one-year contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers worth $1.2 million and took off for China.
No one can judge Mudiay for making the decision to support his family - his heart was absolutely in the right place. But in just his 10th game in the CBA, he sprained his right ankle and would go on to miss the rest of the season, save two playoff games at the end. While other players his age were still making headlines in the NCAA, Mudiay was missing valuable experience to get him ready for the NBA and as a result, his stock was falling.
His Chinese stats were impressive nonetheless - in those 10 games he averaged 17.7 points, six rebounds and 5.9 assists. In just his second game as a pro he tallied 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals. But the sample size was too small, especially for someone who hadn’t played in any high caliber game in the U.S.A. outside of high school basketball.
On draft night Mudiay fell to 7th overall, selected by the Denver Nuggets as a replacement for the disgruntled Ty Lawson. Despite not even working out with Denver before the draft, Mudiay was ready for the challenge of running an NBA team.
Mudiay’s rookie season has gone just about as expected for someone who hasn’t before played at the level of competition the NBA offers. He’s shown flashes of absolute brilliance, but more often than not, he has struggled significantly to adapt. The Rookie of the Year Award is far out of reach, as Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and New York’s Kristaps Porzingis are the clear front runners.
Even D’Angelo Russell, who was largely viewed as the second best point guard in the draft behind Mudiay, is starting to look seasoned. Last week, Russell torched Brooklyn for 39 points, the most by any rookie this season, while becoming just the second rookie in NBA history to hit eight 3-pointers in a game.
On the surface, Mudiay compares nicely to Russell:
Advanced metrics, however, have not been kind to Mudiay at all. More than halfway into his rookie campaign, he’s tied for the worst true shooting percentage in the NBA and has one of the highest turnover ratios in the league. His Player Efficiency Rating is near the bottom of the league at just 8.21 and he is last in the NBA this season in Win Shares at -2.2.
These stats alone are enough to harbor any argument that he’s having a great rookie season. They also reveal glaring weaknesses in his game, namely his shooting and his proneness to turn the ball over. But these are also two issues common amongst rookies that are magnified by the level of competition in the NBA.
Perhaps the biggest issue Mudiay has had this year is his poor shooting. For starters, he’s shooting 34.6% from the field on 12.4 attempts per game, including 28.8% from three. The result is a 39.2% effective field goal percentage, which when combined with his 64.2% free throw percentage yields the aforementioned true shooting percentage.
Looking at his shot chart, it’s easy to see the inconsistency. Mudiay hasn’t just been missing shots, he’s been missing shots from everywhere. This is nothing new - his shooting ability has been in question from the time he was first noticed by scouts.
The concern isn’t just in the numbers, though. The most looming issue with Mudiay’s offensive game lies with his poor shooting form, which is raw and inconsistent. Often he shoots on the way down, and he has a habit of kicking his legs out while fading away.
Usually an easy tell on a shooter’s from is to watch exactly how he misses: does he miss on the left or the right? Does he have the same amount of arc on all his shots? Mudiay misses in almost every way imaginable.
Interestingly, he is a better shooter from the right side of the floor than the left. This is another issue that stems from his shooting form. As you can see in the video below, his right leg tends to lean forward, suggesting that he favors that side of the body.
Given his poor shooting percentage, defenders will play him for the drive and go under screens. For Mudiay, this has been no problem. He takes most of his field goal attempts at the rim by far with 241, but his 41.2% field goal percentage is also one of the worst in the league in that area.
At 6‘5 and with his athletic build, he can withstand contact when he drives, yet he still struggles to finish in the lane. One likely reason for this is that the Nuggets are a terrible three-point shooting team, meaning their opponents are packing the paint and making it difficult for Mudiay to get easy looks.
The good news is that despite his struggles down low, it hasn’t kept him from attacking the rim. As Mudiay gets more comfortable with the pace and intensity of the NBA game, the better he will become at making scoring plays in the key. The bad news is that right now his weakness in the paint contributes to another one of his major weaknesses: turnovers.
It didn’t take long for Mudiay to enter the NBA record book. In his first regular season game against Houston on October 28, he recorded 11 turnovers - the most in any NBA debut since the league started tracking them in 1977-78.
While he also posted 17 points, 5 rebounds and 9 assists in that game, the 11 turnovers would be a sign of things to come. Over the course of the season, Mudiay is averaging 3.4 turnovers per game in another category where he’s near the bottom of the league.
In Mudiay’s 49 games so far this season, he’s had at least three turnovers in 30 of them, and has only had three games without recording a single turnover at all. Though this certainly a high amount, it is somewhat expected for a rookie given the offensive burden he faces. Mudiay is averaging 30.3 minutes per game, second only to Towns among rookies, and also has the highest usage rate among first-year players at 25.4.
Mudiay has good court vision and is selfless with the ball, but most of the time he looks like a young player trying to figure out his way around the floor. Some of his turnovers are due to over-zealousness in forcing the ball, while others are straight up from bad passes. For the most part, though, it’s just Mudiay attacking and learning how to match up against the league’s best athletes.
All of these turnovers may seem like a big problem, but at this point they’re really not. Mudiay finds himself in good company with 19 players who averaged 3.5 turnovers per game as rookies, including Bernard King, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan an Allen Iverson.
The simple truth is that good players have the ball in their hands more often than not. They’re asked to make big plays and sometimes, especially while young, these plays are forced when they just aren’t there. For now, Mudiay falls into this category as he continues to learn and develop his game.
Mudiay has had a rough season, no doubt. He’s struggled more than other rookies have, especially given his initial expectations and draft hype. He will not win the Rookie of the Year Award and his name likely won’t even come up in contention. By a lot of statistical measures, he’s very inefficient thus far.
But this year, if nothing else, has shown exactly what Mudiay’s floor is as a player. He’s a great passer, a huge threat in transition and has the body to be an above-average defender. If he never improves his shot or his court awareness and ball protection, he will still have a prosperous career in the NBA.
And that’s what makes him such a steal for the Nuggets. We’re nearing the end of his first NBA season, and Emmanuel Mudiay still has a seemingly unlimited upside.
Shooting form, mechanics, and developing a long-range shot are all things that will be taken care of in the offseason. Turnovers will also decrease the more he plays and the more familiar he gets with running an offense. He’s already shown he can be a leader, as not many teenagers can be handed the keys to an NBA team with the poise and attitude that Mudiay has.
Last November, after Mudiay scored 16 points and dished out 11 assists in a victory against his Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Kidd was asked to compare Mudiay to himself as a rookie? His response:
He’ll be better. He’s better already. Being able to run an NBA team at 19 is not easy. You look at some of the greats - Magic (Johnson) was able to do it. And you’re looking at this kid Mudiay, who has the opportunity to do something special. So, I would encourage him to be better than me, and I think he will be at the end of the day.
If Mudiay can correct his shooting form and develop better habits, he will start living up to his comparisons to Kidd, Westbrook and any other dominant point guard in NBA lore. He may even surpass some of them.
But even if he doesn’t, years from now when the media re-picks the 2015 NBA Draft, don’t be surprised if at the very least the top three go: Towns, Porzingis, Mudiay.
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