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The stats and eye test say it’s too early to give up on Emmanuel Mudiay

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Many have rushed to write off Emmanuel Mudiay as a bust, but there are reasons to believe he still has a chance.

NBA: Denver Nuggets-Media Day Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I have been vocal about how the Denver Nuggets should commit to Jamal Murray as the starting point guard for this season, and nothing has changed in that regard.

The Nuggets are geared up to make a postseason run, and surrounding the star duo of Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokić with floor spacing, cutting, and defense is the best way to accomplish that. Jamal Murray does those things better than any point guard on the team right now, and he also has potential to develop as a creator off the dribble and draw multiple defenders away from the rim. That’s incredibly important in today’s NBA.

That said, Emmanuel Mudiay is doing his best to make sure nobody forgets about him.

Reports coming back from the offseason and throughout training camp have painted the young point guard in an excellent light. He looks fit, has moved well, and everyone is raving about his improvements over last year. From Chris Dempsey of Altitude a few days ago:

“Emmanuel’s had a great camp so far,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Every facet of Emmanuel’s game right now looks improved. The bigger challenge is going to be, can we take – not just Emmanuel, but everybody – from a camp to a game situation on Saturday against a very talented (Golden State) team. But, his jump shot, his handle, his decision-making, his pace… you can tell he’s put a lot of work in this summer.”

That started with conditioning. Mudiay said he’s down to 199 pounds, which is roughly 12 pounds lighter from where he ended last season.

At this point, the talk of improvement was just that: talk. With Mudiay, the talk of improvement the past two years hadn’t manifested into anything tangible. Mudiay struggled to improve any of the facets of his game last season, other than free throw shooting (moved from 67.0% to 78.4%). This year? From the first two preseason games, there look to be some notable improvements.

Halfcourt shooting

(H/T Mike Schmitz of ESPN)

There are key things to like in Mudiay’s mechanics here. The young point guard has always generated clean footwork moving to his left. In each of the above shot attempts, Mudiay does one of three things:

  • Catches with a “1-2” step and shoots
  • Catches on the hop and shoots
  • Drives to the left and uses his big frame to shoot over the defender

All three will prove useful in the future. These are great halfcourt tools when the pace slows down. As our own Adam Mares loves to note, Mudiay was a 40% three-point shooter on catch-and-shoot threes last year, and a lot of that had to do with the cleaned up footwork and mechanics in the jump shot. Remember when Mudiay would shoot and his body would twist in mid-air? That’s gone now, as his feet now stay in line with his frame and square to the basket.

Halfcourt passing

There were some bad moments, but overall, this was another positive. He made two patented Mudiay passes last night: a wrist pass to the perimeter on the money, and a jump pass for a turnover (but we will focus on the good for now).

Between the Will Barton pass out to a wide open Mudiay catch-and-shoot and this pass from Mudiay to a Barton-catch-and-drive, the Nuggets potentially have two guard creators who can take turns breaking down the defense. This pass by Mudiay was excellent, and because it was made quickly and on the mark, Barton had time to make a good decision and score.

There was also this lob to Mason Plumlee (who also looks much better than most give credit) that very few point guards would attempt, let alone complete.

Mudiay’s physical gifts help him turn the corner on a lot of these pick and rolls, better than any other player on the Nuggets. The problem with Mudiay was always his handle and the decision making once he had to make a quick choice. With a solid, athletic roll man in Mason Plumlee off the bench and spacing around him, this shouldn’t be a fluke play at all in future games.

Transition

Mudiay made a number of plays in transition and was much more efficient in this game than years prior.

Mudiay stays under control on both of these possessions, probing the defense and waiting for an opening before getting to the rim quickly. This was perhaps Mudiay’s most disappointing part of his game the last two years. In 2015-16, Mudiay finished in the 10th percentile as a scorer in transition. Hoping for improvement in 2016-17, he actually regressed slightly to the 9th percentile. This contributed heavily to his inefficiencies, as transition scoring is one of the best ways to generate easy baskets in the NBA. Mudiay made some nice plays in transition last night, including these two passes.

The first is a bounce pass in which Mudiay makes a play for Gary Harris and gets out of the way.

It may seem like a simple pass and not noteworthy, but he showed some serious acceleration and was moving really quickly (running over the summer looks to have helped him). This quick decision - and the correct decision - looks even better when Harris generates an and-1 opportunity.

The next play is also about making the right pass, but this time with a little flair.

Mudiay could have driven to the basket and taken a contested layup, but instead, he waits for a streaking Juancho Hernangómez and gets the young forward an easy dunk with a nice bounce pass between his legs. Again, subtle, but no less encouraging. If he had taken that ball to the rim, the defender might have recovered to generate a miss. Mudiay turned a high percentage play into a higher percentage play, something the Nuggets have been searching for a long time with the young guard.


Historical comparisons

Here are some guards that played their first and second years in the 21st century and put up comparable numbers of volume and efficiency:

*(22 years old or younger, Minutes Played >= 3000 and True Shooting Pct <= .500 and Field Goal Attempts >= 800 and Assists >= 400)

These were all guards that struggled early in their careers. John Wall and Kemba Walker were both inefficient, struggling to get off the ground as lead point guards of good teams. Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo played on good teams, but they were scrutinized for their own struggles due to being in the spotlight. Some players never left ground level like Trey Burke and Jonny Flynn. Others made a career out of being a flawed starter in Brandon Jennings and Ricky Rubio.

Overall, eight of the 13 players listed (the 14th being Mudiay), became at least an average starter at some point in their careers. For some of them, success took awhile. For some, success didn’t even last that long. Still, the chance that Mudiay could follow the path of one of those successful players isn’t as low as I previously thought. After all, Mudiay is still 21 years old and was younger than every single guard on that list. Playing just 12 games in China certainly didn’t help him get up to speed either.


Now, Mudiay’s second game - this one with the starters - didn’t go nearly as well as the first one. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, Mudiay had just six points and four assists to go with four turnovers in 23 minutes of action. He wasn’t necessarily the cause for offensive struggles, but he wasn’t helping the offense either. Where he really improved was defensively, staying aggressive and in the hip pocket of the offensive player as much as possible.

Even still, the tools are there for Mudiay. Making him a starter probably isn’t the right course of action. He has almost singlehandedly torpedoed offenses in the past with poor performances, and the Nuggets can’t have those this year if they want to consistently win games. However, making him a rotation player and a creator in the second unit next to Barton would be a great way to keep him involved. Benching him entirely would be poor for his development, but putting the ball in his hands in lower pressure situations? That feels like the right move.

The biggest thing? Don’t sell low. His value has never been much lower at this point, but unless the Nuggets were to bring in a high quality backup or even a starter to replace him, it just doesn’t make sense. There are a number of player who, like Mudiay, developed very slowly. On the off chance that he turns out to be special, the Nuggets cannot make another Jusuf Nurkic trade.