5 - Draft night
There was a lot of tension in the media lounge at Pepsi Center at the start of the 2015 NBA draft. There were four or five players that Nuggets fans had their eyes on leading up to the draft and a few who Nuggets fans wanted to avoid. Willie Cauley-Stein was projected to go 7th but he had a “sickle-cell problem” and often had a hard time breathing. The Mile-High altitude sounded like a nightmare for him. Emmanuel Mudiay, on the other hand, sounded like the perfect fit in Denver since point guard Ty Lawson was on the outs after yet another drunk-driving violation.
So when it was announced that the Kings were taking Cauley-Stein, Nuggets fans erupted with optimism for the first time in two years. It truly was a new day in Denver. Mudiay had an interesting backstory as an immigrant from the Congo, the same home country as Nuggets legend Dikembe Mutombo. He had faced and overcome so much adversity in his life. His story of resiliency and his close relationship with his family resonated with Nuggets fans around Denver. Larry Brown, who recruited him at SMU, called Mudiay the best high school point guard prospect he’d ever seen. And above all else, Mudiay just seemed cool. He fit what everyone believed to be the description of the next face of the franchise.
4 - Career debut against the Rockets
This was a night I won’t soon forget. The Stiffs were at Jake’s Sports & Spirits for what was at the time our largest Stiff’s Night Out watch party yet. Roughly 200 people crammed into the bar to watch the start of the new era of Nuggets basketball and the debut of Emmanuel Mudiay.
The Nuggets opened on a 10-1 run and Mudiay was throwing assists all over the court. It’s strange to compare this first game of his to Mudiay of 2018. Mudiay’s size and passing were on full display, throwing passes over the defense at every turn and hitting guys in stride for dunks. One thing Nuggets fans will always wonder is whether Mudiay’s career-arc in Denver was more the result of his own ability to develop or just the wrong fit. It almost feels like the further in time you go back, the more promise you start to see with Mudiay.
The young point guard played over 37 minutes that night and finished with 17 points and 9 assists. Jake’s was as loud as it had ever gotten and Nuggets fans were truly certain that they were witnessing the next great Nuggets point guard. It was a great day to be a Nuggets fan.
3 - Rising Stars Challenge
Nuggets fans seem to take a sort of twisted enjoyment about never getting any national attention so when Mudiay went on the big stage of all-star weekend and put up 30 points and 10 assists in the rising star challenge game, Nuggets fans got to puff out their chest a little bit. Who cares if the defensive effort was low enough to make the actual all-star game blush? The Nuggets were back at all-star weekend for the first time in a long time.
2 - 24 point first quarter vs. Boston
There absolutely zero signs that November 6th, 2017 was going to be a special night. The Nuggets were in Boston for what was almost certain to be a butt-kicking against the Boston Celtics on the second night of a road back-to.back. Mudiay himself was coming off of an 0-7 outing against the Pistons so any prediction that he was about to go off for a career-night would’ve been met with a chuckle. Then this happened.
1 - Game Winner against Philadelphia
This shot was emblematic of the Mudiay experience in Denver. It happened in March toward the end of Mudiay’s rookie season. Denver had no shot at the playoffs, neither did their opponent, the pre-Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, Philadelphia was the punching bag of the league that season, the basement dwellers of the NBA and fielding one of the worst rosters in recent NBA history. Yet somehow, Philly was poised to steal that game in Denver.
The final play was peak Mudiay. He nearly turned the ball over, stumbled to catch his balance, and then heaved a shot from half court while falling to his left. Of course it went in. That was Mudiay in a nutshell. He often missed the shots you figured he’d make (especially mildly contested layups) and he made a lot of the shots you figured he had no chance of making. The 5,000 people in attendance for that awful game all lost their minds, as did the young Nuggets team who promptly tackled the young point guard in jubilation. Mudiay’s time in Denver might not be remembered too fondly, but there were some really fun moments sprinkled in there that will stick with Nuggets fans for a long time.