After two underwhelming seasons in Denver, can Emmanuel Mudiay unlock his potential for the rebuilding Knicks?
When Emmanuel Mudiay was selected with the seventh overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in 2015, he was projected to be one of the most athletic guard prospects in the draft. While his athleticism was never in question, he was also considered quite the project — shooting was always a weak spot, and his potential suitors were unsure of how his game would translate to the NBA. Two and a half seasons later, these same problems have continued to plague the Congolese guard during his Denver tenure, and he now finds himself with the rebuilding Knicks following a three-team trade on February 8th. Like Denver in 2015, the Knicks brought in Mudiay for his upside, but will the beleaguered guard rediscover his potential under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden?
Choosing to skip playing for American colleges, Mudiay instead chose to play professional basketball in China, drawing comparisons to Brandon Jennings’ similar Euroleague experience in lieu of college. However, Mudiay did not experience much CBA basketball in his pre-NBA stint in China; he only played 12 games for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, averaging 18.0 points per game, along with 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals. In the draft, he drew comparisons to John Wall, and was slated to become a reliable, athletic playmaker despite his streaky shooting.
If Mudiay is to have a successful NBA career (once his athleticism begins to fade), he will need to improve his shooting, from every area on the floor. As has been much publicized, Mudiay is a terrible finisher at the rim for a guard that has the ability to penetrate at will. In fact, Mudiay is fourth worst in the league at finishing layups at 45%, which he will need to improve on. The rest of his shooting is less than stellar as well: he is shooting just 39.9% from the field, and he is shooting 35.2% from deep (below the 35.1% league average). While playmaking is still his stronger suit, Mudiay will need to be more of a threat if he ever hopes to be an important piece of a winning team.
Over the past 24 hours, the Knicks got younger and more athletic by acquiring Emmanuel Mudiay and more versatile by adding two future 2nd round picks in the Willy Hernangomez trade.— Hard Knicks Life Podcast (@HardKnicksLife) February 8, 2018
Emmanuel Mudiay’s PER 36 stats this season: 17.2 pts, 5.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds.
As he arrives in New York, it is probably fair to say that Mudiay has underperformed based on his pre-draft expectations. After starting 66 of 68 contests in his rookie season, Mudiay fell out of Mike Malone’s rotation this season, averaging a career-low 17.9 minutes per game. There are good reasons for his exile on the Denver bench: the Nuggets were 12 points per 100 possession better when Mudiay was off the floor, and Mudiay was statistically the worst defensive point guard in the NBA this season (by defensive plus/minus). Beside these alarming numbers, many fans and pundits were left to wonder why the Knicks’ front office traded for another young guard when they have already been developing their 19-year old lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.
Photo: Jim McIsaac-Newsday
Despite these valid concerns, the early returns on the trade have been promising. In his debut against the Pacers in Indiana, Mudiay scored 14 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed two boards as well. The most encouraging part of his strong debut is that he shared the court with Ntilikina for nearly all of his minutes, with Frank playing off the ball. Though his second outing was a unfortunate ‘return to form’ of sorts, with Mudiay posting a -18 with 7 points and 2assists in 19 minutes. As Mudiay accommodates himself to a new team, playbook, city and more minutes than he was playing in Denver, he will (hopefully) settle into more consistency. However, he can play his game without the burden of any playoff pressures for the rest of this season.
Another key to understanding the Mudiay deal is the NBA trend of loading lineups with ball handlers. Much as LeBron James often makes plays for the Cavs or multiple players handle the ball for the Warriors, the Knicks are hoping to cash in on this trend by pairing Mudiay and Ntilikina. Both players are still incredibly young (with Ntilikina amongst the youngest in the league), so Jeff Hornacek and the Knicks’ front office are experimenting with lineups to see if this backcourt pairing could actually be a building block toward the Knicks’ future success. This early in his development, the Knicks are unsure if Ntilikina projects as a lead guard, or if he will develop as a shooting guard or even a small forward. His play with Mudiay over the next few months could determine quite a bit of Ntilikina’s future and (as a result) the Knicks’ franchise.
Though Emmanuel Mudiay has had a troubled career in Denver, the Knicks are hoping that he has an epiphany with a change of scenery, similar to All-Star Victor Oladipo’s emergence in Indiana. The upside that made Mudiay a lottery pick is still there, but in his short career, he has been unable to markedly improve his trouble areas, notably, his shooting and finishing at the rim. However, the good news is that Mudiay might finally have the opportunity to grow in New York: the Knicks are headed back to the lottery following the season-ending injury to Kristaps Porzingis, and he can grow as part of New York’s youth movement. He’s still just 21-years old, which is young enough to continue his development, and certainly too young to draw any definitive conclusions about whether or not he can be an effective NBA player.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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