In theology, apologetics is the formal defense of a doctrine. Since this is the church of the Nuggets, allow me to duly apologize in that manner for Emmanuel Mudiay. This won't be the first time I've made some of these points, but after hearing Adam Mares reveal that he's off the Mudiay Train in this interview I feel like someone has to come to the kid's defense. I still think he can be a very good player, and I think he can fit the Nuggets future plans as well. So here are my arguments in favor of the defendant (and a note: this was written before the Lakers game).
Argument: Mudiay is the worst point guard in the league.
Defense: He's also still the youngest PG in the league. Ben Simmons, the #1 pick and future point-forward for the 76ers, was drafted a year after Mudiay but is just 3 months younger. The number of pure point guards who have ever come into the NBA as teenagers is very small.
Drafting a teenage PG means expecting to exercise some patience... which is something Denver did not do, instead thrusting Mudiay into the starting spot immediately thanks to Ty Lawson’s drunken escapades. Even Lawson himself didn’t become Denver’s full-time starter until his third season, at age 24. It was a lot to ask, and Mudiay did not rise to the challenge. He hasn’t backed down from it either though, and is performing better with a little less offensive pressure on his shoulders. Give it time.
Argument: Mudiay is a turnover machine who can't pass.
1) the primary duty of a point guard is to set up his fellow players for success. Mudiay has already demonstrated he CAN toss up some assists. Here's a link to a bunch of assists that Mudiay put up in his first 50 games of his career.
Where have THOSE passes been? Mudiay has demonstrated that he HAS vision. We haven't seen a lot of those passes as Malone has imparted on Emmanuel that the cardinal sin of being a PG is committing turnovers - despite plenty of all-time-great point guards showing up near the top of the league in turnovers in their first NBA exposure. Passes that worked in high school or college don't work in the NBA. The passing lanes aren't as clean because the athletes are simply better.
Emmanuel scaled back on the reward scale to limit the turnover risk and the Nuggets have been the poorer for it - but Mudiay has demonstrated the skill to be a PG in the NBA. Lately the turnovers have stayed low while the assists are climbing again (6.1 assists vs. 1.8 turnovers the last 8 games). If he can find his groove there the rest of the year, especially if he’s able to keep his assists up while having the ball in his hands less, that’ll be a great sign.
Argument: Mudiay is also the worst finisher in the league. If you can't pass and you can't finish what good are you?
2) Mudiay has improved his finishing with Jokic in the starting lineup. Mudiay's biggest bugaboo other than turnovers was his maddening tendency to get within three feet of the rim and then brick a layup or fadeaway for no good reason. Here are his splits this year from before Jokic started as the point-center, and after:
The only percentage that isn’t drastically better is from 5-9 feet, and he’s only shooting that 0.6 times a game. Without having to worry about running the offense every game, Mudiay has been able to fit in as a slasher and scorer and has been doing fine in that role. Sometimes he is still too passive, but the London game certainly brought out the aggressive Mudiay that we've been wanting to see.
Emmanuel Mudiay got nasty on this one but I'm enjoying Nikola Jokic's reaction even more https://t.co/0ZPNT3xx5r— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) January 12, 2017
He finished with 7 assists as well, which were dwarfed by the 13 in his next game but were created in a different role. Mudiay’s ability to be a slasher (and finally become a finisher) when Jokic is the ball-dominant creator, but also be able to provide his teammates with passes they can turn into easy buckets when Jokic becomes the primary scorer is a useful mutability. Not every point guard can function when they don’t have the ball in their hands (see: Nelson, Jameer). Being able to finish sometimes and pass other times, and have impact at either hasn’t always been Mudiay’s strong suit, but the basic outline is there.
Argument: He's terrible at defense. What's the point of having a big PG if he won't defend?
Defense: Okay, this one's tough. He's been really bad defensively. I'm pretty sure Adam Mares is developing a facial tic from watching Mudiay trail helplessly behind a screened guard EVERY SINGLE TIME. Most 20-year-olds are bad at defense, though. Kris Dunn was supposed to be a defensive buzzsaw but he hasn't grasped NBA defense yet - and he's two years older than Mudiay. It takes time, and cooperative effort, and getting comfortable in a scheme, none of which have been afforded to Mudiay.
As we've detailed on this site before, Malone was running one defense with Jokic and Nurkic on the court together that was meant to allow 2s and prevent 3s (which was practiced during training camp), a second defense that quit on three-ball defense, and a third now centered around Jokic and attempting to deny wing penetration again. Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris are thought of as good defenders by very smart people, but their defensive metrics this year are trash. It's the worst defense in the league, as Malone has said, and that can't be all on Mudiay. Build a system that defenders can function in and then we’ll see if Mudiay grows into a defender.
Mudiay has still had these inexplicable 0-for-9 games. He's gotten silly charges for turnovers or run the Nuggets right out of a fast break as recently as last game. The game at times is still too fast for him. But he's still showing me enough flashes.
He has issues with his handle, and I agree with Adam that those issues affect his on-ball athleticism. He’ll still have over-confident moments that lead to turnovers or botched shots. Regardless, there is a good player inside Mudiay that is waiting to be released... if the Nuggets are willing to be patient. Is that good player a great one, a perennial All-Star? The odds are against it - he’s more likely to be that Mike Bibby type who plays well with good players but doesn’t shoulder the load. Mike Bibby had a really good career and helped some really good teams to the playoffs, though; that’s not a knock so much as an acknowledgment that greatness is rare.
The Nuggets don’t need Mudiay to be a HOF-level player in order for him to be a successful and important piece of this team’s future. They just need him to be that good player he keeps providing glimpses of. Just be who you are, Emmanuel - that guy who showed up against Orlando is plenty good enough.