There’s no specific point in a NBA player’s career where potential becomes reality. It has and always will be an ongoing process, with a significant amount of work taking place just to get to the league in the first place and a significant amount ensuring you stay there. The hope is that progress is steadily made along the way.
And yet, there are some players that seem to have a higher ceiling than others. They seem capable of doing more at the start and reaching a point further than their contemporaries. Denver Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay falls into this category, perhaps a surprising statement considering his brief career has been so dogged by inconsistency.
When Mudiay was drafted seventh overall in 2015, an unmistakable air of mystery played to his advantage. He had been a highly touted prospect from Texas but skipped out on his commitment to Southern Methodist University (with former NBA head coach Larry Brown then at the helm). Instead, he signed a one-year deal with the Guangdong Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Though he showed spurts of incredible athleticism for the Tigers, his CBA stint was limited to just 12 games, cut short by an ankle injury. However, his time in China was sufficient to meet the NBA’s requirements that a player be a year removed from high school prior to the draft and Mudiay, with little experience, a ton of questions and the tantalizing-if-vague lure of potential on his side, sought to make his basketball dream come true.
The Nuggets needed a point guard and were willing to gamble that a 19-year-old practically right out of high school would fill that need.
It’s not surprising that, over a year later, Mudiay finds himself at yet another professional crossroads and still surrounded by mystery. In a widely-heralded rookie class, the 6-5, 200 lb. guard went somewhat under the radar, earning some praise for his play but being largely overlooked. His unorthodox route to the NBA — starting in Kinshasa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continuing in Dallas before bypassing college and then ending in China — likely played a part. But his impact on the court often seemed as sprawling.
Mudiay played in a total of 68 games (starting all but two) and played the fifth-most minutes among first-year players. His 12.8 points per game average was good for sixth-best among rookies and third-highest on Denver’s roster. But he also led the team (and all rookies) in turnovers, at a rate of 3.2 per game. Worse yet, his shooting was absolutely abysmal, finishing the year with a field goal rate of just 36.4 percent, including 31.9 percent from three-point range, and a free-throw rate of just 67 percent.
It was particularly evident early in his rookie season, when Mudiay shot just 20.8 percent (11-of-53) on three-point attempts in 16 November appearances. His struggles continued into December until an ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the month, providing a blessing in disguise.
Questions about Mudiay’s mechanics had been there prior to the draft, with analysts noting inconsistencies in his shooting form on a game-to-game basis. His relative inexperience was probably a factor, but many noted that Mudiay’s elbow jutted out while shooting or that his release on jump shots came just a split-second too late, on the way down instead of at the peak of his jump.
During his 14-game absence, Mudiay began working closely with teammate Mike Miller, one of the most prolific shooters in NBA history. The work paid immediate dividends upon Mudiay’s return in January, with the rookie converting 33 percent of his long-range attempts that month. A drop in February did occur but, following the All-Star break that same month, Mudiay displayed legitimate shooting range, hitting 38-of-100 shots through the last 22 games of the season.
In a late-March game versus Philadelphia, Mudiay finished with 27 total points and hit 3-of-5 from long range, displaying an improved form on his shot:
A brief stint in this year’s Summer League showed Mudiay’s mechanics had remained consistent, a positive sign for a player who struggled so mightily from nearly everywhere on the floor.
But improving his form might only be part of the solution. His shooting woes aren’t limited to just beyond the arc but are widespread across the court, where Mudiay shoots poorly from both mid- and close range. In transition opportunities, Mudiay ranked in the 10th percentile of qualifying players, good for just .82 points per possession. In isolation plays, he shot just 22.4 percent. In post-up situations, Mudiay shot a dreadful 25 percent (all stats per Synergy data at NBA.com).
At heart, there’s a gambling nature to Mudiay’s offensive approach. He relies heavily on his length and speed to get shots over a defender, as he should. When it works, it’s a thing of beauty, a glimpse of the greatness he can achieve. When it doesn’t work, as it often didn’t last season, it can be painful to watch.
Mudiay takes so many chances with his shooting, you expect them not to fall (even watching highlight videos, knowing that he’ll make the shot, a sense of impending doom is inescapable). He incorporated a fadeaway jump shot as a significant (and sometimes unnecessary) part of his scoring repertoire. Prior to the All-Star break however, that shot often resulted in a miss, clanging off the rim at a dreadful 29.3 percent.
But even gamblers can learn to recognize the right tricks that help them win, and Mudiay’s growth was evident here as well. Following the break, his completion rate on fadeaways rose significantly to 40.6 percent:
This same style of play is characteristic of Mudiay’s passing as well. He took chances that other players simply won’t or possibly can’t, with every inch of his frame extending and contorting to complete a lob or wraparound pass that results in a beautiful score:
The gambles paid off frequently in November, with Mudiay racking up 5.8 assists per game, with the rookie proving to his veteran teammates that he could get them involved in the offense whenever he needed to. But the downside to those risks resulted in 3.5 turnovers a game, with needles that didn’t need threading resulting in a steal and quick score for a Denver opponent.
Like his shooting, however, Mudiay eventually found a comfort zone with his passing, with 4.7 assists per game in March but a reduced turnover rate of 2.4 per game.
Mudiay’s growth last season was certainly encouraging, and yet there’s a sense that he isn’t fully appreciated both nationally and in the Mile High City he now calls home. It’s possible that the inefficient hole he dug for himself was too great to climb out of and that some solid performances toward the end of another lost season weren’t enough evidence that he’s ready for stardom.
It could also be a lingering side effect of the basketball purgatory that the Nuggets have inhabited for quite some time. Two seasons of Brian Shaw and a mostly dysfunctional locker room certainly didn’t help.
Still, there’s light at the end of Denver’s tunnel, with head coach Michael Malone providing much of the glow. The Nuggets’ roster might not be star-laden, but there’s a good blend of talent, depth and, yes, potential, to make this an interesting team to watch. Malone’s intense, driven approach will make sure of that.
At the heart of it all will be Mudiay, especially if his growth becomes the norm and not the exception. While there’s always the possibility that he’ll regress, there’s the chance that his dynamic ability will continue developing and he becomes an elite player that can help lead this team back to the postseason after a three-year absence.
To a gambler like Mudiay, a chance might be all he needs.