Last Friday when the Denver Nuggets defeated the Atlanta Hawks at Cox Pavillion, a large majority of the NBA media members that are in Las Vegas to watch summer league were absent, electing instead to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves a few yards away at Thomas and Mack center. That game featured the top two picks in the NBA draft in Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell as well as a packed stadium of over 11,000 fans, most of whom were there to cheer on the Lakers. So for many of the national NBA media members, Sunday's game against the Kings was their introduction to Emmanuel Mudiay.
Let's just say he made a few new fans.
The stands and the media section of Cox pavilion were packed before tipoff in anticipation of what became the day's marquee matchup and it only took a few moments before the gym was electric, buzzing about the talent and play of Mudiay. Fans were oohing and awing at every drive to the lane, every cross court pass and every step back jump shot. By the end of the day, Mudiay had won over the entire crowd and made believers of nearly everybody in the gym.
Mudiay possesses many talents, some of which are rare for any player in the NBA, especially rookies. His ability to find open players from one side of the court to the other and effortlessly deliver passes right in the shooters pocket are already at an elite NBA level. Not an elite summer league level or elite rookie level, an elite NBA level. John Wall, James Harden, Lebron James. That' is the list of players that are definitively better at throwing cross court passes than Mudiay right now. He's that good at it. His combination of size, vision, and wrist strength enable him to whip the ball 30 feet across the court and around the defense from almost any position, almost always hitting the open player in stride and right in the spot where they can catch the pass to quickly get into their shooting motion.
Mudiay's other elite level skill is that he is phenomenal at changing direction and speed. Watching hours upon hours of summer league games over the last few days, one thing that stands out is just how off most players' timing is. Guards go too fast, bigs go too slow, players mistime their pick and rolls and cuts the the rim. Mudiay has a natural feel for what speed to cruise and when to sprint into overdrive and turn a corner or attack the lane. He uses a few very nifty dribble moves and fakes and makes it difficult for defenders to find his rhythm and then right when they are on their heels, he changes direction and/or speed and gets into the lane.
He also uses his size very well and on several occasions he bodied up a shorter defender to create contact and separation before launching a step back jumper, a shot he's taken somewhat frequently, especially in late shot clock situations or when he can get in isolation near the basket.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about his game so far is how he seems to already be developing a nice chemistry with nearly everyone on the roster. He and Nikola Jokic work extremely well together in both the pick and roll and on outlet passes. Mudiay gave Jokic several nice pocket passes out of the pick and roll and Jokic returned the favor by having excellent vision and quick decision making after defensive rebounds. Mudiay also found the perimeter shooters very well, throwing several no-look passes off of drives to the basket, hitting Ian Clark, Garry Harris, and Erick Green for open threes. In just two games, Mudiay has already figured out a lot about what his teammates like and how to get them the ball in optimal situations on the court.
He isn't perfect. His defense over the first two games has been pretty sloppy and inconsistent. He really doesn't seem to understand how to defend at an NBA level, often getting confused on rotations or failing to close out properly. His free throw shooting was also problematic and in the 2nd half, the Kings started going well under the ball screen, giving him wide open pull up jumpers which he mostly missed. Nonetheless, those are things that he will likely learn over time. Defense in particular is not a cause for concern since he will be learning under some of the best defensive minds in the league in Mike Malone and Ed Pinckney. Overall, Mudiay has just shown that he is something special. Grade: A+
Nikola Jokic - Early in the game, the Nuggets ran a baseline out of bounds play designed to get Jokic an open three pointer which he nailed, nothing but net. That shows you what kind of trust the organization has in Jokic's shooting touch. His touch around the rim is also incredibly soft and he demonstrated that with an impressive left handed jump-hook in the 3rd quarter. Jokic is a very skilled player and he has an impressively high basketball IQ on offense. He is very good at "cheating the defender" on post ups, suckering them out into space and then sealing them on the inside. The pace of the game was extremely fast and as a result, Jokic wasn't featured as much as one might expect heading into the game, but he was still able to show flashes of brilliance and understanding of some of the subtle nuances of the game.
His defense was also impressive early on, blocking a pair of shots at the rim. He also found himself switched onto a much smaller, quicker guard in the first half and moved his feet very well before stripping the ball for a steal.
He's less NBA ready than Mudiay and his learning curve will likely be a bit less steep. He seems uncomfortable with his 2-9, the term used to describe a defenders ability to stand in the paint on help side for 2.9 seconds (as opposed to 3, which is illegal). Several times in this game he seemed to check out of the paint at the worst possible time or over commit too soon, leaving his defender open for the drop off. And as crafty as he is about getting post position, he isn't quite strong enough yet to hold post position for more than a second or two.
Those things will come in time and for a rookie, his deficiencies haven't been that loud or overwhelming like many of the other rookies competing in summer league for various teams. Jokic's good has far outweighed his bad and his skill set seems perfect for today's NBA. Grade: B+
Joffrey Lauvergne - Joffrey finished with a double-double, posting 13 points and 10 rebounds, an impressive stat line for a summer league game. He and Jokic owned the boards in the 2nd quarter and in other stretches of the game and Joffrey was able to make several impressive hustle plays, running the court and cleaning up the glass. He also nailed two three pointers including one on the 3rd possession of the game. Joffrey seems to have the green light to shoot when he is open and he's been decent at knocking it down in an extremely limited sample size.
He still struggles as someone to create offense for himself or teammates and he had a couple of fairly ugly post ups today. It's unclear if he will develop a reliable scoring package and he may end up being more of a pure role playing hustle guy and not somebody that gets touches in the offense and is asked to create. We'll see, summer league is a great place to give him a chance at it and the Nuggets have seemed fine giving him four or five opportunities per game. So far, he hasn't looked great at it but he has more than made up for it with hustle plays. He may end up being best used as a spot up stretch 4 or 5, a hustle guy who rim runs and wears out the defense, and a guy that crashes the boards after every shot. Grade: A
Gary Harris - Harris gets his hand on the ball on nearly every defensive possession when matched up one-on-one. He has incredible great hands and focus on defense and creates steals or disrupted plays by having such active hands. Malone is going to love Harris for his defensive instincts and I think he is a player that will really shine this season in that regard. Harris struggled with his shot early in the game but after he settled in, he hit a pair of threes and got to the rim a couple of times.
More often than not his instincts are still to attack the basket rather than spot up. In the video below, notice how the defense is there to meet him in the paint on the fast break. If he trusted his shot he'd likely spot up on the wing for a wide open three. Instead, he instinctively attacks the basket and gets a charge call. Plays like this happen fairly routinely and I'm not sure it's in his makeup to change that. Nonetheless, his defense will be enough to keep him in the rotation this season even if his attacking the basket game doesn't translate outside of summer league. Grade: B+
Ian Clark - Clark got hot in this game and it made all of the difference in the outcome. At one point he started 5 for 5 from beyond the arc, helping open up the game in the first half and put it away in the 2nd. He showed what a difference having a reliable shooter can make on an offense, especially one that features such a great penetrator as Mudiay. The defense was forced to over-help as Mudiay got into the paint over and over again, and that left Clark open. When he made them pay, that's when the game tipped in the Nuggets' favor. He's awfully small and probably won't shoot that well every game, but if he can keep it up, he'll make a case for being retained on the roster and in the rotation.
Erick Green - Green can score in bunches and like Clark, his three-point shot was a big part of why the team was able to score so efficiently. After the game Micah Nori said that with Mudiay on the court, "if you just stay shot ready, he will find you." Green did exactly that today and as a result he was able to knock down several catch and shoot jumpers. His defense also looked good and he too was able to create turnovers, recording three steals in the game. This was the best Green has looked in a long time and it will be interesting to see if he can build on it for the rest of this tournament. Grade: A
One other note.
Since arriving in Denver, Malone has insisted on several occasions that the team intends to run in transition and to let their defense create fast break offense. Today was a great example of that as the Nuggets looked to push the ball on nearly every possession. The Denver guards pushed the ball at every chance and their 98 points was the 4th highest so far in summer league. Their defense looked sharper in game 1, but tonight they showed that they can run and gun when they are able to get defensive rebounds, turnovers and stops.