“Grandma, do you remember where you were when the United States landed a man on the moon?”
This was a question I asked my grandmother, who is in her late 80s, a few years ago on one of our weekly phone calls. There are things in her life that are once in a lifetime moments, things she’ll never forget. It was a story I wanted to hear from her, so that I could remember it myself and appreciate the greatness of that achievement.
But for Nuggets fans, we can tell our own story of greatness to our grandchildren someday in the distant future:
Where were you when Emmanuel Mudiay outplayed Russell Westbrook?
It’s not even something Westbrook fans can argue against. Mudiay was better than Westbrook in every area of the game, on offense, defense, and as a leader for the team in a win that could be argued was one of the best wins of the Michael Malone era.
Mudiay made all four of his 3-point attempts that game, and they weren’t easy ones either. Check out the video of his game, including the two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that gave the Nuggets the lead for good.
He’s shooting well from nearly everywhere behind the 3-point line, and he’s spreading out his shot attempts as well. According to NBA Stats, he’s shooting 75 percent of his 3-point attempts off passes from his teammates, a sign of improved decision making and awareness of when to pull the trigger on a shot attempt.
This development, while welcome, has certainly been unexpected. While some of us have always believed in Mudiay’s tools, there wasn’t a lot of evidence in the box score to support that belief. Mudiay was a 31 percent 3-point shooter the first two years of his career, and owned a jump shot that too often had an ugly hiccup before he would release the ball. The ball didn’t look pretty coming out of his hands, and it didn’t look pretty ricocheting off the rim or back iron.
What are some possible explanations for Mudiay’s current hot streak?
The 2017 Nuggets are in the Upside Down
This is a theory proposed by fellow Denver Stiffs writer Gordon Gross. It’s a reference to a Netflix series called “Stranger Things,” something I haven’t seen and don’t understand references to. Things don’t go as expected in the Upside Down (as far as I can tell) and so obviously Mudiay would be a great shooter this year while a player with a shooter reputation (Jamal Murray) is shooting 26 percent on 3-point attempts.
Mudiay got a new haircut
This is a theory that I want to believe in. Some people decide to believe in superstitions, and who knows, maybe correlation does mean causation sometimes. When you’re feeling confident in your appearance, sometimes that carries itself into other areas of your life.
You may laugh, but I had a tradition before every sporting event I participated in growing up of cutting my fingernails just before I left the house. If I didn’t do a good job, I always seemed to have a bad game. Some people may think that a new pair of socks gives them special powers, or a specific meal brings them luck before they’re about to compete. I’m not saying it’s a proven thing, but I’m not saying it’s not a proven thing.
There’s also the advice, “Dress for success.” With the Nuggets fresh new Nike uniforms, toss in a clean cut, and now Mudiay has the tools he needs to succeed.
The Mudiay-Russell rivalry
Emmanuel Mudiay wasn’t the first point guard selected in the 2015 draft, with the Los Angeles Lakers selecting former Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell with the third overall pick. Since that day, Mudiay has gleefully tormented Russell whenever they’ve played against each other. It’s natural for Mudiay to want to prove that he’s a better player than Russell (low bar, I know) and with Russell being given a new opportunity in Brooklyn, perhaps Mudiay wants to prove that despite not being the starter in Denver, he’s still the better player.
Russell certainly has more opportunities to prove himself as the starting point guard with the Nets, and is putting up averages of 20 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds a game after 11 games in the season. But the Nuggets have won both games against the Nets this season, with Mudiay scoring in double digits in both events.
This isn’t a plea to Michael Malone to put Mudiay into the starting lineup. I think Malone’s decision to keep Murray with the starters is smart, and I also agree with Malone’s decision to keep Murray on the bench if he’s not feeling it. There’s no need to toss Murray into the same pot of boiling water they did with Mudiay. Mudiay and Will Barton are capable of shouldering the load on the nights when Murray doesn’t have it going. Mudiay doesn’t need to start to prove he’s better than Russell, he just has to keep succeeding in the role he’s being tasked with.
Mudiay put in work during the offseason to become a better player
In all seriousness, Mudiay is only 21 years old and this is his third season in the league. We all know that Mudiay chose to play in China rather than spending a year at an university, and had a monumental task of being a starter from day one of his career. The Nuggets asked a teenager to go out and succeed against players like Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and Steph Curry. Why were we surprised when he struggled?
Mudiay has always had the tools to be a successful player in the NBA, it was just a matter of figuring out how to succeed. A cursory inspection of Mudiay suggests that he spent time working out this summer, lifting weights and trying to wrinkle out errors in his jump shot. He’s always been strong, especially for his position, but he doesn’t look like he’s not old enough to legally purchase alcohol anymore. He looks like he’s finished physically growing, and that has to make a difference.
Watch Mudiay’s form on his jumper - that double clutch motion has nearly disappeared. He’s elevating, confidently releasing the ball, and following through on his release. A key component of perimeter shooting is strength through the legs and core, and perhaps coming off the bench fits better with his level of conditioning, an aspect of his game that he needed to improve after season two.
He’s also taking a high percentage of his 3-point shots on open jumpers - one of his strengths throughout his career has been his ability to get into the paint (still working on finishing once he gets there). If the shot isn’t there from the perimeter, he’s attacking the closeout and forcing the defense to react to his dribble penetration. If there’s anything he can learn from his teammate Will Barton, it’s how to pick when to take a 3-point shot and when to slither into the paint to put a shot up near the rim. Barton excels at this, and if Mudiay can learn how to fill that role, it’ll make things much easier for the Nuggets front office in the offseason and make the team better in the future.
Mudiay’s start has him in some pretty special company. According to Basketball Reference, the only guards this season that have made more than 14 3-point attempts while shooting 48 percent or better are C.J. McCollum, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon, Cory Joseph, and Mudiay.
This isn’t the first time Mudiay has been hot to start the season. Who can forget the eruption at TD Garden last November where he scored 24 points in the first quarter against the Celtics? Let’s hope that this year, Mudiay avoids injury and is able to carry this hot shooting throughout the season.