“It’s a new day.” The words faded off the screen as the Denver Nuggets newest face of the franchise looked out over the skyline of his new home town in the team’s newest promo right after he had been drafted. Emmanuel Mudiay brought hope to a city that had been strung through nearly a decade’s worth of disappointment. First came the Carmelo Anthony trade, then the Danilo Gallinari knee injury, then the debacle that was Brian Shaw and finally, the fallout of Ty Lawson’s alcoholism. Each time the Nuggets fans rose their hopes from the ashes, misfortune was there to dash them away. Sadly, but for different reasons, Mudiay would be the same way.
As reported by Chris Dempsey (then of the Denver Post), on the night Mudiay was drafted Nuggets GM Tim Connelly gushed, stating “I’m giddy, it was a very excited draft room upstairs...we actually talked about moving up to get Emmanuel.” There was plenty of reason for Connelly and the city of Denver to be excited. A year earlier Mudiay was talked about as a possible, perhaps even probable, first overall pick in the draft. His size, vision, ability to get to the basket and explosiveness had future star written all over him. Unfortunately, Emmanuel was unable to attend SMU and play under the tutelage of Larry Brown after the high school he attended, the Deion Sanders sponsored “Prime Prep”, made him ineligible. So, like some young players have done, he chose the international path, moving across the world to play one season for the Guangdong Tigers in China. More adversity came Mudiay’s way when he hurt his ankle and played just 12 games. That would be the only basketball experience he got between high school and the NBA.
Still, the Nuggets were high on their newest addition and Emmanuel gave them good reason to be with a dazzling performance in his first Summer League. Sure, there were questions about his jumpshot, that little hitch that was painful to watch, but Mudiay got plenty of oohs and ahhs every time he whipped a pass across the court with precision, demonstrating vision well beyond his years. When Denver rested him for the remainder of the Summer tournament, Mudiay was courtside, sporting a Dikembe Mutombo jersey and cheering on his teammates. The idea of one kid from Congo following in the footsteps of another Nuggets legend from Congo was all Denver fans needed to get hooked.
The feelings would last for about a year. Coach Michael Malone gave Mudiay the reins from the get go. An ankle injury again sidelined him in December, but Mudiay would would start 66 of the 68 games he played his rookie year. The counting stats weren’t bad, per 36 minutes he put up a respectable (especially for a 19 year old rookie) 15.2 pts, 6.5ast and 4.0 reb. However, there was more going on beneath the basic statistics that started to raise some flags. He shot barely over 50% from within 10’ of the basket, a number that confirmed what was being seen on the court in terms of his inability to finish at the rim. His turnovers were alarmingly high for a point guard at 3.2 per game, and he was incredibly inefficient with a true shooting percentage of 43.7%.
There were bright moments too. He saved the Nuggets from an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers with a buzzer beater from near half court. He dueled with Devin Booker in March and led the Nuggets to a win (a beat writer attending his first game ever with a credential may have forgot to hold the door for him on the way out of the stadium...). He flashed that tantalizing talent that made his ceiling so high. He could blow by veterans with his first step, he played tough one on one defense against even the best of point guards like Steph Curry. Despite all the flags, there was plenty to be encouraged about with Mudiay after year 1...it wouldn’t last.
Mudiay entered year two like his rookie season, as the de-facto starter and still the face of the franchise, but he wasn’t alone anymore. Nikola Jokic was rising to stardom and Denver had spent the 7th overall pick, the same spot where Mudiay was drafted, on Jamal Murray who played the same position as him. Expectations were rising. No longer would Mudiay’s careless turnovers or blown layups be shrugged off as a 19 year old finding his way. As unfair as it was, 20 year old Mudiay was expected to one day be able to lead Denver to the playoffs, and fans who had been without a postseason birth since 2013 were growing impatient. Then, in early November, Emmanuel reminded everyone once again why he was so captivating. Against a Celtics team that was clearly on the rise, Mudiay WENT OFF. He scored 24 points in the first quarter and 30 for the game. Everything was working that night. He drove and finished through contact, he hit three pointers like Curry, he crashed the glass and got putbacks like Kenneth Faried. Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier, Avery Bradley, it didn’t matter. Mudiay could have had Bruce Bowen on him that night and he still was going to score. As always was the case though, the warning signs were still there, lying in wait. He turned the ball over seven times that night, and would turn it over seven times the game after that. Despite some 20+ scoring nights through December, Emmanuel’s struggles with ball control, efficiency and off-ball defense eventually would force coach Malone’s hand.
On Jauary 21st, 2017 Mudiay went 0-8 from the field in just 16 minutes of play. He’d be benched for the next five games and over the course of the next thirty-two games, he’d play just nine. Today, we can look back to that January and point to it as the beginning of the end. Only after the Nuggets were eliminated from playoff contention would Mudiay get another shot. The story is repetitive but once again the Mudiay roller coaster was climbing back up. In a stretch of five games right before the season ended he played heavy minutes and played well. The turnovers were down, the assists were up and with the exception of one poor game against the Houston Rockets, he was helping the team to win, not hindering them. When the season ended fans had refreshed hopes for their young point guard. Sure, he may not be the superstar face of the franchise that everyone wanted, but he could be a part of a core that had already found their star in Jokic.
The 2017-2018 season opened with the most important five game stretch of Mudiay’s career to that point: the preseason. With Murray fully healthy and coach favorite Jameer Nelson still in tow, it would be up to Emmanuel to prove he deserved a spot in the rotation. The results were mixed. He looked effective in back to back games against the Lakers but the turnovers were still a problem. Then against the San Antonio Spurs he’d get his final shot to seize the starting role. With Murray out and Jameer Nelson only playing 23 minutes there was a chance for Mudiay to put the exclamation on the LA games and take what was in front of him. He shot 1-6, scored four points and was a team low -23. I wrote the next day that the writing was on the wall.
Tim Conelly had other ideas however. With all signs pointing to Murray and Nelson being the point guards in the rotation Conelly forced coach Malone to go the other direction and released Nelson. Mudiay was going to play, hell or high water. Once again, there was reason to believe. If nothing else, Mudiay was suddenly shooting over 40% from three and the sample size was getting decent enough to believe it might be real and for the most part it seemed like he was playing better. The roller coaster started plummeting back down though. Mudiay’s turnover’s were as mind numbing as ever and with him being responsible for running the second unit they looked lost. The Nuggets were bleeding points with him in and it was costing them games. An ankle sprain on December 18th would sideline Emmanuel but even when he returned to health, coach Malone elected to keep him on the bench. It would be an entire month before he saw significant game action again.
One last time Emmanuel would get his shot when he was re-inserted in the rotation three weeks ago. Hindsight tells us now that that move was likely motivated by trying to increase his value, and given the Nuggets surrendered no draft picks to move him perhaps you can say that move worked. Malone rarely played him more than 15 minutes a game and to Mudiay’s credit, it was far less often that he was a hindrance rather than a help on the court. Unfortunately, the one redeeming quality of his season, his improved three point shooting, was coming crashing back to reality. In his last eleven games, he shot just three of sixteen from beyond the arc, or 18.8%. That tumble brought his overall season 3pt % to 37.3 % which was still good, but a far cry from being a single redeeming attribute that made him a viable option on the court. Finally, yesterday the era came to an end with Mudiay being traded to the New York Knicks in a three team deal that brought veteran point guard Devin Harris to Denver in return.
While his on the court production in Denver will always bring mixed reviews, Emmanuel’s off the court behavior can never be doubted. The consummate professional through and through. Yes, it’s true he did not speak to the media this year but imagine being 21, in the midst of trying to keep your dream alive and being run through the ringer of the media. Not hard to see why Mudiay didn’t want to talk. What he also didn’t do was complain. He was benched, multiple times, and never once was there any inkling of discontent, even though the competitor inside him assuredly was burning in white hot rage. No, there were no off record comments, no deleted tweets, no moping on the bench from Emmanuel. Only professionalism and support for his teammates and for that he should be commended.
What should not be lost in Emmanuel’s story either is the immense amount of pressure that was laid on him at a very young age. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Mudiay wasn’t ready for the burden that was placed on him when he was just a teenager. He had played a dozen games in China and a handful more in Summer League and preseason and then was the starting point guard on an NBA team, in charge of running an offense with established veterans like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler who probably had no interest in wasting their prime years waiting for a point guard to develop. He wasn’t just the starter either, he was supposed to be the savior. It was a ridiculous expectation and while Denver’s coaching staff and front office probably didn’t lay all those expectations on him right away, with Mudiay marketed as the next big thing in Denver, as the promo at the top so clearly depicts, it was obvious that the fans would create the expectations on their own. Given his youth and lack of experience, it’s equally obvious in hindsight that he would struggle to live up to those expectations. Gary Harris never had that put on his shoulders, Nikola Jokic was a total unknown when he came to the Nuggets and by the time Murray had arrived, Jokic was already the new face of the franchise. Mudiay and Mudiay alone had to bear the burden of franchise savior expectations as a teenage rookie.
Now he gets his next chance, in a new place, with a new team and with few expectations. New York isn’t ideal, like Denver they already have a young point guard of the future in Frank Ntilikina, and like Denver they too have a coach still trying to prove he can make it at the top position in the NBA in Jeff Hornacek. New York is also a bright spotlight with a much larger and pushier media contingent than Mudiay experienced in Denver. Still, the opportunity will be there. The Knicks aren’t likely to put emphasis on winning this season now that Kristaps Porzingis is out for the year which means they’ll be willing to ride through the ups and downs of the roller coaster that is Mudiay’s development, a luxury that the playoff seed chasing Nuggets do not have.
Meanwhile, Denver is in a much better place than they were the day before they drafted Emmanuel Mudiay. They’ve gone from an NBA laughing stock with hit pieces being written about the entire organization, to a respectable franchise on the rise that is capable of wooing players like Paul Millsap in free agency. Mudiay’s not the biggest reason for that change, make no mistake, but he was a part of it. I guess you could say that, in some ways, he did deliver on bringing in that “new day.” Best of luck Emmanuel, we’ll be rooting for you.