When Emmanuel Mudiay walked out onto a balcony overlooking the Denver skyline right before the screen revealed the words “it’s a new day”, fans were rightfully filled with excitement. Denver Nuggets fans had been through a roller coaster over the past five years. First came the departure of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, signaling the beginning of Ty Lawson as the lead playmaker for Denver. Lawson excelled at first, but the firing of George Karl and Lawson’s battle with alcoholism derailed his career as a Nugget shortly after it had taken off. After multiple DUIs forced Denver’s hand to trade Lawson, and after a second straight season falling well short of the playoffs, Mudiay falling to the Nuggets at the number seven pick of the 2015 draft was viewed as the turning point of the franchise. Now heading into his third season, Mudiay has unfortunately been anything but.
The struggles of Emmanuel are well chronicled. He struggles to finish at the rim, evidenced by the fact he shot just 45.3% on shots 10’ or closer last season. Apply pressure and it gets even worse. He averaged 1.7 attempts inside of 10’ with a defender 2’-4’ away last season. He converted on just 33.8% of those attempts. He’s also not a great jump shooter, recording a FG% of just 36.6% on catch an shoot opportunities last season and an abysmal 25.8% on pull up jumpers in the same time period. He also has struggled with ball security, averaging plus 3 turnovers over 36 minutes in both his rookie and sophomore seasons, often times attempting passes that have such little chance for success that they border on the absurd.
Yet, as training camp kicked off there was renewed excitement for Emmanuel. Coach Michael Malone noted quickly how Mudiay had been the best player on the court during the first team scrimmage. There were reports about how he slimmed down thanks to a stricter offseason workout and diet regimen. When camp opened, despite all his struggles, the opportunity to be the starting point guard for the Nuggets in 2017-2018 was very much in play for Emmanuel. However, once the statements to the media about how well he was playing gave way to actual game film of him playing it was quickly apparent there was still a large amount to question in Mudiay’s game.
While he broke out offensively off the bench for the Nuggets in their first preseason matchup against the Golden State Warriors, scoring 19 points on an impressive 60% field goal percentage, he also had four turnovers. While his defensive energy looked good, he still struggled with finishing at the rim. Still, after one game there was reason to be excited about Mudiay, and even reason to think he actually could be the best player to start at the one come opening night. Those good feelings died out quickly.
True to his word of making the point guard position a competition, Malone gave Mudiay the chance to start in preseason game number two. The aggressive player who nearly got 20 points two nights before was gone. Mudiay was passive and struggled with ball security again, racking up four turnovers against just six points and four assists. After that game Murray was inserted back into the starting lineup and Jameer Nelson was given a clean bill of health and the odds started to look stacked against Mudiay. He would unfortunately do himself no favors in the second game against the Los Angeles Lakers either, having one of his abysmal performances in terms of ball security (seven turnovers) that have become all too common place with his play in the NBA.
Coach Malone said after the game:
After three games, I still have an idea of who we will start, but as far as who we play off the bench it’s going to be interesting to see how these last two games play out. We’ll let them play out before we make any final decisions.
On Sunday the coach’s plans became more clear, and it doesn’t look good for Emmanuel. Coach elected to sit Jamal Murray which would be a very peculiar move if he still had questions about where Murray was going to fit in the rotation. Coming off his biggest performance of the preseason, Murray being given the game off against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday seemed to be a strong indication that he had already secured the starting position because he hadn’t done anything to not still merit consideration. Coach giving him the day off and playing Mudiay and Nelson heavy minutes falls in line perfectly with the notion that he has an idea who is going to start but still needs to determine the backup point guard position.
Unfortunately for Mudiay, he once again did himself no favors. The outlook was grim from the beginning due to the fact that Nelson was given the nod to start, though it could be argued that Nelson had yet to be given an opportunity to start in the preseason so his nod to play with the ones on Sunday could have been in the spirit of an open competition. Yet, when Jameer turned in a less than stellar performance himself it presented an opportunity for Mudiay to at least solidify his spot in the rotation. He did nothing of the sort. Emmanuel turned in what might have been his worst performance of the preseason. Though he was able to limit his turnovers to just two, he also went 1-6 from the field and managed a team low -23 rating in just nineteen minutes. It doesn’t take a stats expert to tell someone that if a team loses more than a point a minute to the opponent every time a player is on the floor then it’s not going good for said player.
Now with just one game remaining before they start to count, Mudiay faces the very real prospect that he will once again find himself riding the bench in the regular season and possibly may find himself playing his final games in a Nuggets uniform. At 21 years old and 6’5” tall, he still represents a tantalizingly high ceiling, even if the chances of him reaching it seem far less likely than they were just a short two years ago. There’s a chance that a fresh start in a new city could be just what he needs to rejuvenate his career and he’s still got plenty of time to do it. For the Nuggets however, leaving Mudiay on the bench racking up DNP-CDs while a 20 year old is racking up starts and being backed up by a 36 year old is a fairly damning indication that, barring injury, they have found the point guard of the future they want to go with and aren’t willing to sacrifice wins seeing if Mudiay is going to ever come close to his potential, even as a backup.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, for Mudiay, for the organization and even for the people covering the team. Emmanuel has always been a great player to work with and a guy who’s easy to root for. He’s well spoken, he has a quiet demeanor about him, he doesn’t speak out when he’s frustrated but he also doesn’t back down from reporters in the locker room after a tough loss. When he was benched last season he responded by being the best teammate he could be. Additionally, despite the struggles, the flashes have always been there and still are there. The Golden State game was a perfect example of that. It’s still too early to write the final chapter on Emmanuel’s NBA career, but with all indications pointing to him being on the outside looking in for the Nuggets, it might be time to write the final chapter on his career in Denver.