When Emmanuel Mudiay speaks to a crowd, everyone listens - not because they're eager to hear what he has to say, but because the 20-year-old rookie doesn't make much noise.
Few NBA players have the background that Mudiay has. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mudiay emigrated to the United States as a young child, fleeing civil war that was a visible presence in his daily life. His father passed away when Emmanuel was 1-year-old, and his older brothers, Jean-Michel and Stephane, stepped into a leader role for their younger sibling.
Mudiay grew up in Arlington, Texas, attending high school at Prime Prep, a high school created by Deion Sanders that shut their doors permanently in 2013. Mudiay was recruited to Southern Methodist by Larry Brown, and he committed to the Dallas private school before withdrawing and signing a contract to play in China for the Guangdong Dragons. One of the top high prospects in the country, who had dominated his peers on the national level at competitions like the Nike Hoop Summit, was headed to the Far East to play professionally.
After a frustrating season in China where Mudiay missed games due to a sprained ankle, he declared for the NBA draft. Playing overseas instilled enough doubt in scouts and general managers that the athletic point guard was still available when the Denver Nuggets were ready to pick with the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft.
The Nuggets were thrilled to pick Mudiay, and shortly after the draft moved the incumbent starting point guard, Ty Lawson, to the Houston Rockets. There was to be no doubt whose team this would be going forward - the quiet, confident point guard from Congo.
Mudiay's game is much like his choice of transportation. While he uses his new-found wealth to help provide for his family, Mudiay picked out a Porsche Panamera to help him get around town. His game is sleek, powerful, fast, and luxurious. He glides around the court, using his length and vision to cause deflections or pry the ball away on drives. He can burst around screens, weaving his way into the paint, creating passing angles out of thin air or elevating to the rim. It's not a carnal style of play, like Westbrook detonating above the rim, but a deft athleticism, seeking and avoiding contact while maintaining a space with the ball.
In his first year in the NBA, there have been highs and low. In his first game, Mudiay played almost 38 minutes and had a season-high 11 turnovers. He attempted 63 3-pointers in November and December, making just 13 of them. His struggles to shoot from the perimeter, finish in the paint, and lead a NBA team were very apparent. But when others, like Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott spoke out in criticism against him, he'd quietly respond.
The Nuggets have been careful with Mudiay this season. Nuggets personnel said the right things most of the season about wanting to compete for the playoffs, but shortly after the All-Star break, it became obvious that a postseason berth wasn't in the cards this year. The team's primary scorer, Danilo Gallinari, went down with an ankle injury on February 26 against the Dallas Mavericks, and the goal officially became to finish the season in one piece and compete next season.
Since then, all Mudiay has done is step into the leadership void created by Gallinari's absence. In the four games since Gallinari was sidelined, Mudiay is averaging 17.8 points per game, leading his team to wins over the Lakers and Mavericks and having their hearts broken in overtime against the Brooklyn Nets. He's more confident with his jumper, eliminating the hitch that plagued him earlier in the season. He's rebounding, defending, and avoiding turnovers. Oh, and he's still able to make passes like this (video courtesy of An Nyugen).
The Nuggets are rolling with a young lineup, with veteran Kenneth Faried the elder statesman of the starting lineup at 26. But the Nuggets have a bright future with Mudiay at the helm, Jokic in the post, and a great head coach in Michael Malone.
Mudiay may not be the most vocal player in the league, but as long as he continues to let his game do the talking, it's plenty loud enough for all of us to hear.