Emmanuel Mudiay: A Rookie Point Guard's Quest For Stardom


Source: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

 

There may be a stranger route to the NBA than the one rookie Emmanuel Mudiay took, but I haven’t found it yet. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), his father died before his family fled to the United States to escape an all-too-familiar war in that part of the world. Speaking primarily French, in Dallas, TX, surely made the young Mudiay a fish out of water. Mudiay adjusted to his new surroundings, grew to be a physical specimen and became a star basketball player at two Prep academies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Named a McDonald’s All-American, he committed to play at SMU in Dallas, before changing his mind and signing a $1M contract to play for a season in the Chinese Basketball Association. Depending on who you ask, this decision was based either on helping his family financially or skirting some eligibility issues with the NCAA. After losing in the semi-finals to Stephon Marbury(!) and the Beijing Ducks, Mudiay returned to the States to prepare for the NBA Draft.

So if you’re keeping track at home: the Congo -> Dallas -> Guangdong, China -> Denver. Pretty straightforward, if you’re a CIA operative. But this is new ground for a basketball player, especially one who’d become the 7th-overall pick as a teenager.

The team that drafted Mudiay, the Denver Nuggets, had just hired a new coach (Michael Malone) and desperately needed a point guard that could also be the face of the franchise. The Chauncey Billups era was long gone and heir apparent Ty Lawson had flamed out with the team after several arrests before being shipped off to Houston. To truly compete in the Western Conference, it’s almost a prerequisite to feature a star point guard. Additionally, since the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York in 2011, there’s been a lack of star power at the Pepsi Center. Team executives and fans alike looked at this raw 6’5”, 200-pound physical freak as the solution to both problems. However, few fans had ever seen him play since Guangdong Southern Tigers games aren’t included on most Comcast packages. 

This is the pressure Mudiay stepped into head on. It would soon be apparent that though his game wasn’t quite NBA-ready, the intangibles acquired through his rare life experiences are keeping him afloat.

In many ways it’s been a classic rookie season. These things aren’t supposed to be easy. His story is right out of the rookie point guard handbook:

  • Rookie arrives with all the hype and fanfare that the 7th-overall pick brings (plus an air of added mystery due to his international basketball exploits).
  • He tries to do too much too early and is plagued by a calamitous penchant for turnovers in the preseason.
  • Early in the regular season he struggles with the familiar young point guard tropes: learning how to run a pro offense, earning older teammates’ trust, trying to guard some of the best players in the world on a nightly basis.
  • Local columnist skewers struggling rookie (note: the article’s harsh but not at all unfair).
  • Rookie finds himself on the bench in the fourth quarter of close games by early December.
  • Floundering rookie suffers bad ankle sprain that sidelines him for 11 games, and, scarily, life goes on for his team without him. When he returns he’ll have to fight to get his starting job back. Such is life in the NBA. 
  • He’s faced with a “Come to Jesus” moment - does he get down on himself while sidelined or does he turn the corner and come back stronger?

Mudiay turned the corner.


Read about Mudiay in various publications and you learn quickly that he’s a determined and genuine individual. When things go wrong for him on the court he doesn’t get too down on himself. He doesn’t pout. When evaluating rookie point guards the stats are important but they don’t come close to telling the whole story. I put a lot more stock in the work ethic and coachability of a rookie point, especially if they play heavy minutes for a bad team. A young point sets himself up for statistical leaps in years two and three by working out the kinks in his game in year one. Malone is smartly playing the long game with Mudiay, building his confidence in an effort to turn him into a winner and leader of this Nuggets team.

You get the sense that Malone has a realistic view of where the Nuggets are and values player development even if it results in short-term failures. Mudiay is just one of his projects - Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Will Barton are thriving under Malone’s tutelage. His strategy with Mudiay is to throw him into the fire, getting him experience in clutch situations. Fellow rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell has fought an uphill battle all year with Lakers coach Byron Scott, covered in more detail here. Malone’s gone about it the right way, while Scott is on the brink of losing his job.

Mudiay wants to get better and be that franchise savior in Denver. Desire is cool, but hard work is vital. Mudiay is a worker - he devours game film and takes his coach’s tough love seriously. Malone is quick to protect him publicly, pointing out he’s a 19-year old playing the game’s toughest position. Malone’s no pushover though - he’s a fiery coach in practice and the locker room. He’s made it clear to Mudiay that the turnovers are a problem; that he can’t settle for jump shots when his clear best skill is attacking the paint and creating. By all accounts, Mudiay has taken these teachings to heart.

So when he was out for those 11 games, according to Malone he carefully observed the action on the floor and made his injury time productive. He chose Door #2: come back stronger. From a recent Denver Post article, Malone said, “For a 19-year old kid, to kind of go through the adversity that he was going through, he bounced back in a big way. That gives me so much hope and excitement for the future.”

Mudiay quickly earned his starting role back with a new approach. He began attacking the basket more often and with fury. He’s shown the desire to take the big shot when a game hangs in the balance. Like on this ridiculous buzzer beater against Philly, capping a 27 point/11 rebound/1 turnover performance:

 

He’s starting to scratch at the surface of his amazing potential as his first season rolls along. At the same time there’s no magic elixir a rookie point guard can take to suddenly become a consistent star. His game logs are all over the place - he will look like he’s arrived one night (going for 30 on 65% FG on March 10 vs. Phoenix) and he’ll have games where his stat sheet induces retching (5 points on 1-11 FG on March 21 vs. Cleveland). He hit the dreaded rookie wall in February, but has admirably rebounded in March - outside of that Cavs game - producing his best stats of the season.

 

About those pesky stats…


Advanced statistics do not smile upon the young Mudiay. At all. When held up for comparison to a list of 41 other notable point guards’ rookie seasons, his inefficiency is glaring. Maybe it’s recency bias, but I expected he’d have reasonable comps with some big-name stars, especially given the common belief that even great point guards have to swim upstream in year one. But the rookie year has been especially difficult for Mudiay, at least where advanced stats are concerned. His 9.4 Player Efficiency Rating is the lowest of any rookie point guard I measured other than Dante Exum last year. 

Refer to the table below for the full story. *The intention is to compare his rookie season with other point guards’ rookie seasons to try and find any correlations and predict his ceiling. Higher consideration was given to players who played at least 1000 minutes (Mudiay’s on pace for ~2000) in their rookie season, hence why Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague and Steve Nash are crossed out in the PER table.

 

42 Rookie Point Guard Seasons (sorted in descending order of PER)


Player

Season

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

FG% 

3P%

FT%

AST

STL

TOV

PTS

Chris Paul

2005-06

20

78

78

22.1

36

0.43

0.282

0.847

7.8

2.2

2.3

16.1

Kyrie Irving

2011-12

19

51

51

21.4

30.5

0.469

0.399

0.872

5.4

1.1

3.1

18.5

Magic Johnson*

1979-80

20

77

 

20.6

36.3

0.53

0.226

0.81

7.3

2.4

4

18

Steve Francis

1999-00

22

77

77

18.4

36.1

0.445

0.345

0.786

6.6

1.5

4

18

Kyle Lowry

2006-07

20

10

0

18.3

17.5

0.368

0.375

0.893

3.2

1.4

1.2

5.6

Rod Strickland

1988-89

22

81

10

18

16.8

0.467

0.322

0.745

3.9

1.2

1.8

8.9

Andre Miller

1999-00

23

82

36

17.9

25.5

0.449

0.204

0.774

5.8

1

2

11.1

Anfernee Hardaway

1993-94

22

82

82

17.4

36.8

0.466

0.267

0.742

6.6

2.3

3.6

16

Brevin Knight

1997-98

22

80

76

17.1

31

0.441

0

0.801

8.2

2.5

2.4

9

Dennis Johnson*

1976-77

22

81

 

16.7

20.6

0.504

 

0.624

1.5

1.5

 

9.2

Damon Stoudamire

1995-96

22

70

70

16.7

40.9

0.426

0.395

0.797

9.3

1.4

3.8

19

Stephen Curry

2009-10

21

80

77

16.3

36.2

0.462

0.437

0.885

5.9

1.9

3

17.5

Stephon Marbury

1996-97

19

67

64

16.1

34.7

0.408

0.354

0.727

7.8

1

3.1

15.8

Derrick Rose

2008-09

20

81

80

16

37

0.475

0.222

0.788

6.3

0.8

2.5

16.8

Tim Hardaway

1989-90

23

79

78

16

33.7

0.471

0.274

0.764

8.7

2.1

3.3

14.7

John Wall

2010-11

20

69

64

15.8

37.8

0.409

0.296

0.766

8.3

1.8

3.8

16.4

Mark Jackson

1987-88

22

82

80

15.7

39.6

0.432

0.254

0.774

10.6

2.5

3.1

13.6

Kevin Johnson

1987-88

21

80

28

15.5

24

0.461

0.208

0.839

5.5

1.3

1.8

9.2

Russell Westbrook

2008-09

20

82

65

15.2

32.5

0.398

0.271

0.815

5.3

1.3

3.3

15.3

Jason Kidd

1994-95

21

79

79

15.1

33.8

0.385

0.272

0.698

7.7

1.9

3.2

11.7

Mike Bibby

1998-99

20

50

50

14.8

35.2

0.43

0.203

0.751

6.5

1.6

2.9

13.2

Fat Lever

1982-83

22

81

45

14.8

24.9

0.431

0.333

0.73

5.3

1.9

1.7

7.8

D'Angelo Russell

2015-16

19

71

39

14.3

27.5

0.420

0.353

0.725

3.4

1.2

2.4

13.2

Isiah Thomas*

1981-82

20

72

72

14.5

33.8

0.424

0.288

0.704

7.8

2.1

4.2

17

Chauncey Billups

1997-98

21

80

70

13.6

27.7

0.374

0.329

0.85

3.9

1.3

2.8

14.5

Nick Van Exel

1993-94

22

81

80

13.6

33.3

0.394

0.338

0.781

5.8

1

1.8

13.6

John Stockton*

1984-85

22

82

5

13.3

18.2

0.471

0.182

0.736

5.1

1.3

1.8

5.6

Gary Payton*

1990-91

22

82

82

13.2

27.4

0.45

0.077

0.711

6.4

2

2.2

7.2

Rajon Rondo

2006-07

20

78

25

13.1

23.5

0.418

0.207

0.647

3.8

1.6

1.8

6.4

Sam Cassell

1993-94

24

66

6

13.1

17

0.418

0.295

0.841

2.9

0.9

1.4

6.7

Baron Davis

1999-00

20

82

0

12.9

18.6

0.42

0.225

0.634

3.8

1.2

1.7

5.9

Terrell Brandon

1991-92

21

82

9

12.8

19.6

0.419

0.043

0.806

3.9

1

1.7

7.4

Mike Conley

2007-08

20

53

46

12.6

26.1

0.428

0.33

0.732

4.2

0.8

1.7

9.4

Maurice Cheeks

1978-79

22

82

 

12.6

29.4

0.51

 

0.721

5.3

2.1

2.4

8.4

Deron Williams

2005-06

21

80

47

12.4

28.8

0.421

0.416

0.704

4.5

0.8

1.8

10.8

Kevin Porter

1972-73

22

71

 

12.4

17.1

0.455

 

0.614

3.3

 

 

6.6

Jrue Holiday

2009-10

19

73

51

12.3

24.2

0.442

0.39

0.756

3.8

1.1

2.1

8

Tony Parker

2001-02

19

77

72

11.7

29.4

0.419

0.323

0.675

4.3

1.2

2

9.2

Jeff Teague

2009-10

21

71

3

11

10.1

0.396

0.219

0.837

1.7

0.5

0.7

3.2

Steve Nash

1996-97

22

65

2

10.8

10.5

0.423

0.418

0.824

2.1

0.3

1

3.3

Emmanuel Mudiay

2015-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

0.351

0.303

0.661

5.5

1

3.2

12.2

Dante Exum

2014-15

19

82

41

5.7

22.2

0.349

0.314

0.625

2.4

0.5

1.4

4.8

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

Mudiay’s field goal percentage is among the lowest of all rookie seasons charted, at 35 percent. His offensive rating is a meager 86; his defensive rating is 110. Those stats measure an estimated number of points produced and allowed per 100 minutes. Yikes.

He’s one of 14 point guards charted to average 3 or more turnovers per game in their rookie season. The turnover stat is not as damning as it initially seems however, as the other 13 players in that group make elite company: Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, John Wall, Steve Francis, Steph Curry, Penny Hardaway, Russell Westbrook, Tim Hardaway, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Stephon Marbury and Kyrie Irving. If he ends up being as good as the worst player on that list, it will be a successful career.

Below I’ve taken some statistical snapshots to get an idea of which players had similar numbers in their rookie season to Mudiay’s, in key point guard metrics.

 

Points Per Game - Mudiay ranks 18th of 42 point guard rookie seasons charted


Player

Year

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

FG%

3P%

eFG%

FT%

PTS

Mark Jackson

1987-88

22

82

80

15.7

39.6

0.432

0.254

0.448

0.774

13.6

Nick Van Exel

1993-94

22

81

80

13.6

33.3

0.394

0.338

0.452

0.781

13.6

D'Angelo Russell

2015-16

19

71

39

14.3

27.5

0.420

0.353

0.490

0.725

13.2

Mike Bibby

1998-99

20

50

50

14.8

35.2

0.43

0.203

0.442

0.751

13.2

Emmanuel Mudiay

2015-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

0.351

0.303

0.387

0.661

12.2

Jason Kidd

1994-95

21

79

79

15.1

33.8

0.385

0.272

0.426

0.698

11.7

Chauncey Billups

1997-98

21

80

70

13.6

27.7

0.374

0.329

0.445

0.850

11.2

Andre Miller

1999-00

23

82

36

17.9

25.5

0.449

0.204

0.456

0.774

11.1

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

Analysis: Mudiay’s going to be a 20-point scorer in this league, and his 12.3 ppg is not a bad start. The problem again is his inefficiency - it takes him way too many shots to get those points and poor shot selection is something Malone is trying to coach out of him. Just looking at the points, however, Mudiay is in some very good company on this list, especially given his age. He will assuredly be above Jackson's and Van Exel’s 13.6 ppg when he’s 22 - the age those two were as rookies.

 

Assists Per Game - Mudiay ranks 19th of 42


Player

Season

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

AST

Stephen Curry

2009-10

21

80

77

16.3

36.2

5.9

Nick Van Exel

1993-94

22

81

80

13.6

33.3

5.8

Andre Miller

1999-00

23

82

36

17.9

25.5

5.8

Emmanuel Mudiay

2015-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

5.5

Kevin Johnson

1987-88

21

80

28

15.5

24

5.5

Kyrie Irving

2011-12

19

51

51

21.4

30.5

5.4

Russell Westbrook

2008-09

20

82

65

15.2

32.5

5.3

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

Analysis: The first thing that jumps out is that he’s averaging slightly more assists per game than KJ, Russ and Kyrie did in their rookie seasons. KJ would eventually average 9.1 assists for his career and Westbrook is a triple-double monster these days. Russ is probably Mudiay’s absolute best case scenario ceiling. Nobody’s as athletic as Russ, but Mudiay is of the same mold. And there’s Andre Miller and Van Exel again.

 

Minutes Per Game - Mudiay ranks 19th of 42

 

Player

Season

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

TRB

AST

STL

TOV

PTS

Russell Westbrook

2008-09

20

82

65

15.2

32.5

4.9

5.3

1.3

3.3

15.3

Brevin Knight

1997-98

22

80

76

17.1

31

3.2

8.2

2.5

2.4

9

Kyrie Irving

2011-12

19

51

51

21.4

30.5

3.7

5.4

1.1

3.1

18.5

Emmanuel Mudiay

2015-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

3.4

5.5

1

3.2

12.2

Maurice Cheeks

1978-79

22

82

 

12.6

29.4

3.1

5.3

2.1

2.4

8.4

Tony Parker

2001-02

19

77

72

11.7

29.4

2.6

4.3

1.2

2

9.2

Deron Williams

2005-06

21

80

47

12.4

28.8

2.4

4.5

0.8

1.8

10.8

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

 

Analysis: Rookie point guards can easily get buried on the bench units of an NBA team. The ones that reach 30 minutes per game are clearly valued as building blocks of their franchise and as such, are drinking out of the firehose. Mudiay’s had a rollercoaster year but his coach hasn’t lost trust in him.

 

Steals Per Game - Mudiay ranks 32nd of 42


Player

Season

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

TRB

AST

STL

Jrue Holiday

2009-10

19

73

51

12.3

24.2

2.6

3.8

1.1

Stephon Marbury

1996-97

19

67

64

16.1

34.7

2.7

7.8

1

Nick Van Exel

1993-94

22

81

80

13.6

33.3

2.9

5.8

1

Emmanuel Mudiay

2015-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

3.4

5.5

1

Andre Miller

1999-00

23

82

36

17.9

25.5

3.4

5.8

1

Terrell Brandon

1991-92

21

82

9

12.8

19.6

2

3.9

1

Sam Cassell

1993-94

24

66

6

13.1

17

2

2.9

0.9

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

Analysis: Overall Mudiay has been OK defensively for his age. But there’s definite room to grow in one-on-one situations, which will help his overall ratings. The guys adjacent to him on this list saw their career steal numbers mirror their rookie numbers remarkably closely. Brandon saw the biggest jump to 1.6 career steals per game.

 

Themes: With these charts as a guide, it’s remarkable how similar Mudiay’s counting stats are to what Miler and Van Exel did in their rookie seasons. Curiously, both also played for the Nuggets at times in their long careers. The three players have very different games; Mudiay has much more explosion and natural instincts around the rim, but at this point he lacks Miller’s passing ability or Van Exel’s craftiness. Miller’s rookie year grades out much higher than Mudiay’s in PER - 17.9 to 9.4. Van Exel’s 13.6 PER was under the average of 15 but still several points higher than Mudiay’s. This is mostly due to the volume of shots and misses that Mudiay has had. Miller was never a great scorer but he was efficient from the field and the free throw line, even early on. Van Exel became a 41% FG shooter and 79% free throw shooter. Mudiay can get to the foul line, but he’s a poor free throw shooter. Similarly, he regularly creates his own midrange and three-point shots, he just struggles to make them at an efficient rate. But the shot can be fixed, which leads me to share Malone’s hope and excitement for Mudiay’s future.

 

Finally, a review Mudiay’s stats compared to the other 19-year old point guards in the study

 

Player

Season

Age

G

GS

PER

MP

FG

FGA

FG% 

3P

3PA

3P%

eFG%

FT

FTA

FT%

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS

Kyrie Irving

'11-12

19

51

51

21.4

30.5

6.9

14.6

0.469

1.4

3.6

0.399

0.517

3.4

3.8

0.872

5.4

1.1

0.4

3.1

18.5

Stephon Marbury

'96-97

19

67

64

16.1

34.7

5.3

13

0.408

1.5

4.3

0.354

0.466

3.7

5

0.727

7.8

1

0.3

3.1

15.8

D'Angelo Russell

'15-16

19

71

39

14.3

27.5

5

11.8

0.42

1.7

4.7

0.353

0.49

1.6

2.3

0.725

3.4

1.2

0.2

2.4

13.2

Emmanuel Mudiay

'15-16

19

60

58

9.4

30.2

4.6

13

0.351

1

3.1

0.303

0.387

2.1

3.2

0.661

5.5

1

0.6

3.2

12.2

Tony Parker

'01-02

19

77

72

11.7

29.4

3.5

8.3

0.419

0.8

2.5

0.323

0.467

1.4

2.1

0.675

4.3

1.2

0.1

2

9.2

Jrue Holiday

'09-10

19

73

51

12.3

24.2

3.2

7.1

0.442

0.8

2.2

0.39

0.502

0.9

1.2

0.756

3.8

1.1

0.2

2.1

8

Dante Exum

'14-15

19

82

41

5.7

22.2

1.8

5.1

0.349

1

3.2

0.314

0.448

0.2

0.4

0.625

2.4

0.5

0.2

1.4

4.8

 *Source: BasketballReference.com

Analysis: We've talked about his poor efficiency as a demerit in his overall comps, and the same holds when isolated against other 19-year old point guards. He sports the 2nd-lowest PER among 19-year olds and he's worst in three point percentage, turnovers and eFG percentage. Mudiay's 2nd-lowest in field goal percentage and free throw percentage (thank God for Exum!). All this further highlights that his inefficiency is unusually bad. However, he's 2nd in assists and 4th in points. All in all, the numbers here do some considerable damage to the "but he's only 19" narrative. We can, however, blame his lackluster comparisons on the hole he dug himself in the first two months of the season.


So where is Mudiay’s ceiling? Is our subject’s destiny really to become a less efficient Andre Miller? Or a stretched-out rendition of Van Exel? I’ll go out on a limb and say no; he has greater things ahead (no disrespect to Professor Miller or Nick the Quick). Big guards with speed and strength that can score are very much in vogue in today’s NBA, and for good reason. It’s a rare skill set. Mudiay has what can’t be taught. The big point guard frame, the dynamic physical ability, a knack for finding space in the lane. His erratic play can be reined in because he's coachable. You know who else used to get killed for being too erratic? Russell Westbrook. I think Mudiay’s ceiling is a few rungs below Russ and a notch below prime Derrick Rose, but prime Marbury (before he went crazy) is within reach. He seems to have more of a point guard brain than Marbury did, meaning his teammates will like him better. For now, let’s say he projects to be a hybrid of Marbury and Rose in their heydays. His poor stats might say that’s a touch optimistic, but he’s incrementally improved since coming back from injury. You can’t ignore his dreadful offensive rating or PER, but also recognize his field goal percentage has increased from 27% (Dec.) to 33% (Jan.) to 35% (Feb.) and now 39% in March. He just turned 20 and is mature beyond his years. It’s a safe assumption that this offseason he will be locked in a gym working on his jump shot, free throws, ball security and one-on-one defense. I’ll bet on the player development ability of Malone and the kid with a furious work ethic who escaped a war zone. The NBA point guard position is a riddle he can solve.

 

 

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