Emmanuel Mudiay, the 6-foot-5 guard who left Guangdong Southern to become the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, has underwhelmed as the Denver Nuggets point guard over the past two seasons. There’s no reason to sugar coat it.
Drawing in defenders as he probes into the paint, he’s often been solid as a facilitator, with quick, timely and at times flashy assists. His playmaking ability has led to him having at least five assists in over 50.4 percent of the games he’s played in his career.
But it was his scoring ability that scouts loved about him coming into the draft, and it’s there that he’s disappointed. In 123 contests, he’s scored less than 20 points in 87.0 percent of the games he’s played.
In part, this is because the Denver Nuggets were a team that struggled to create spacing by often combining some pair of Jusuf Nurkic, J.J. Hickson, Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic in the frontcourt. Thus, they clogged the paint and made it that much harder for Mudiay to finish inside.
When you consider that Will Barton only shot 34.5 percent from three in Mudiay’s rookie season (a career-high for Barton but not ideal for a wing player) while Jameer Nelson shot just 29.9 percent from three, there wasn’t the greatest spacing anywhere on the court.
Yet, there were times Mudiay could thrive and that’s when the Denver Nuggets managed to find ways to space the floor.
When Kenneth Faried (a master of short corner spacing), Darrell Arthur (who shot 38.5 percent from three in the 2015-2016 season) and Danilo Gallinari (who shot 36.4 percent from three in the 2015-2016 season and 38.9 percent from three in the 2016-2017 season) were on the floor with Mudiay, the team’s offense performed well.
In Mudiay’s rookie season, two of the team’s top-five lineups featured Arthur at power forward. Two of their top-ten lineups featured Faried. Mudiay didn’t fair well beside Gallinari in his rookie season. However, that completely changed the next season, as the Nuggets fourth-best lineup (+17.8 points per 100 possessions) featured Mudiay and had Gallinari sharing the court as a combo forward beside Wilson Chandler.
The only other lineup where Mudiay played and the team had a positive point differential (+4.0 per 100 possessions) came when Gallinari played at the four and Faried was the team’s center.
Mudiay, who will now have Arthur, Faried, Juan Hernangomez (40.8 percent from three-point range in his rookie season), Trey Lyles (38.3 percent from three in his rookie season) and Paul Millsap (37.8 percent on corner threes for his career, 45.0 percent last year) playing beside Jokic in the frontcourt, will have all the spacing in the world.
When looking at a potential depth chart for the 2017-2018 season, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Chandler, Millsap and Jokic should be expected to come out as the Denver Nuggets starters. Behind them, Nelson, Barton, Hernangomez and Faried are likely to be the second unit.
In theory, with Nelson and Barton both guards, that leaves Mudiay on the outside looking in.
However, because of Nelson’s struggles in slowing down opposing point guards (which is relatively unsurprising for a 35-year-old player) he’ll often play the shooting guard position. In addition, because of the prominence of small-ball, Hernangomez and Barton will often play power forward and small forward respectively.
While Monte Morris is a player who has played solid basketball in the Summer League and should get a look as the second unit point guard, Mudiay has been in Malone’s system since his NBA inception. Because of that, he’ll get the first chance to prove he can play minutes in the second unit and guard the opposing point guards.
Last year, Mudiay held opposing players to shooting 38.2 percent in isolation (effective field goal percentage of 42.1). In addition, he held pick-and-roll ball-handlers to shooting 41.5 percent from the field (effective field goal percentage of 44.0).
Compare that with John Wall, another big point guard with an affinity for flashy passes and getting in the paint but armed with an inconsistent jumper. Wall held opponents to shooting 33.3 percent in isolation (effective field goal percentage of 34.7). He held pick-and-roll ball-handlers to shooting 43.1 percent from the field (effective field goal percentage of 47.0).
All things considered, he’s not a bad on-ball defender.
With that said, looking at the offensive end again, if he’s on the court, he’ll often be playing beside other other intelligent players capable of being playmakers in Millsap, Jokic and Nelson. That will allow him to get easier shots on offense.
CBS Sports’ Matt Moore reported that Mudiay is working out with his teammates in both Denver and Las Vegas and building chemistry with them this offseason.
With better chemistry, and solid spacing and playmaking around him, Mudiay could see a spike in his shooting percentages from the field. He could also see a spike in his assist numbers.
Lastly, even if his jump shot doesn’t round out, he should have much more success around the rim.
With Nurkic gone, the paint has been unclogged, and Denver’s new and improved spacing should provide Mudiay with more lanes to the hoop.
That works out for Mudiay, who is at his best running right at the rim, in transition and when probing the paint in the halfcourt, slashing to the rim against players who aren’t as quick as him.
Mudiay’s been solid making plays off of the ball. On cuts, Mudiay shot 56.3 percent from the field last season and operating as a catch-and-shoot option from three-point range, Mudiay shot 36.1 percent from three last season.
Mudiay may not be a 20-point scorer next season but with increased efficiency, he could average 10-15 points per game, even in a backup role.
To be fair, there’s no guarantee that playing Murray at point guard will work and Nelson facing Father Timer entering the final season of his contract.
He needs to improve his shooting ability and his turnovers in transition (24.8 of his transition attempts end in a turnover). That should come with work in the gym and in the film room but it’s no reason to give up on Mudiay. As previously mentioned, even upper echelon point guards like Wall don’t have what you’d call a reliable jump shot and even Jokic turned the ball over frequently in transition (26.7 percent of his attempts ended in a turnover).
Nonetheless, Mudiay will need to improve and he should have the chance to show he can.
He should still have a chance to prove he can be the team’s point guard of the future.
Even if it’s his last.
*Unless otherwise referenced, all stats gathered from basketball-reference.com