As a rookie, Emmanuel Mudiay struggled tremendously. Now a sophomore, his sustained inconsistency has left him out of the rotation. 

Once upon a time, Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay was a nearly perfect prospect. With great size, athleticism and explosiveness, the then-18-year-old drew comparisons to John Wall, and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd said that Mudiay would be better than him by the time his career’s over. It hasn’t panned out that way. Roughly halfway through his second season, Denver is making it clear that they don’t believe Mudiay is their best fit to run the point.

The Nuggets have played 11 games since the All-Star break, and they’ve leaped out to a 7-4 record. At 32-35, they’re back in the playoff picture. Of those contests, Mudiay’s played in four. And three of those appearances came in garbage time. The one game he got extended playing time came against the Milwaukee Bucks, and he actually stayed on the court for 17 minutes. Because of his reduced playing time, Mudiay’s been unable to put up any numbers, but it’s not like he had over-the-top production before his benching. Since warming the end of the bench, he’s totaled 15 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 6-of-15 from the floor.

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Before the break, Mudiay was a double-digit scorer (11.8 a night) and a solid passer and rebounder whose abilities got overshadowed by poor decisions. For every great pass he made, there was a silly turnover; any dazzling finish around the basket was preceded by six or seven bad shots.

His assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.69 entering the All-Star break, and he was shooting a piddling 36.9 percent. This, unfortunately, is nothing new.

As Mudiay was lighting up the AAU circuit with bone-shattering ankle breakers and rim-rolling jams, few questions had to get asked if he could succeed at the next level. One thing that scouts wondered was how long his jump shot would take to develop, and that’s something that almost everyone in the NBA was wondering. A commitment to Larry Brown and the SMU Mustangs was a surprise because of how sought-after Mudiay was; this was a potential first overall draft pick going to play outside of a Power Five Conference. It wasn’t unprecedented, but it felt like it.

Brown and his staffed never let up, and the persistence paid off. Mudiay made the decision to play for the Mustangs on Aug. 23, 2013. Despite being up in age, Brown, who was 71 when he took the job, was an incredible coach by NBA standards, and he was going to take what he knew to a small school in the American Athletic Conference.

Less than a year later, Mudiay had signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.

The decision to forego college was so Mudiay could support his family. And it’s hard to do that when you’re labeled an “amateur” despite the school making millions of dollars off you and your teammates. But I digress.

Because we have the luxury of looking back on Mudiay’s decision and saying it was poor, we’re going to. But you couldn’t fault him when he made it. Chris Mannix had pointed out in a Sports Illustrated piece that Mudiay’s mother worked 10-hour days to provide for her family and he “wanted her to stop.” He did what was best in that circumstance. Even if he spent that one year in college, a lot could’ve happened.

As we reflect, yes, it’s easy to say that he should’ve gone and played for the guy who turned Allen Iverson into a force.

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Mudiay went to China, and the CBA isn’t exactly the greatest league. It’s run-and-gun, and the competition is diluted. Guys who struggle in the NBA go there and dominate because it’s a shootout nightly, but Mudiay worked his tail off while he was there. Through his first 10 games, he looked great. Mudiay eclipsed the 20-point mark five times, including a career-best 29 in just his second game with the team. He’s always had an NBA-ready body equipped with athleticism way beyond his years, and it translated to the CBA very well.

After those 10 games, Mudiay sprained his ankle and missed all but the final two games of the year. He returned in time for the Tigers semifinal game against the Beijing Ducks, and Mudiay came off the bench and poured in 24 points and also grabbed eight rebounds and four assists. Had he performed like that in the NCAA Tournament, it would’ve been almost a lock for him to go top-three. Since it was in China, that performance fell on deaf ears, and teams wanted to see more.

The time leading up to the draft was full of individual workouts, and what Mudiay displayed was what he displayed all along. An incredible athlete with handles to match and the potential of being a franchise point guard. However, there was still no jump shot.

June rolled around, and the Nuggets scooped him up with the seventh overall pick. D’Angelo Russell‘s scintillating freshman campaign at Ohio State separated him from Mudiay as the best guard in the class, but the upside of the still relatively unknown prospect was as high as anyone else. He arrived with a Nuggets team that was stuck in purgatory — too good to tank, not good enough to contend for a playoff spot.

Denver had no identity, lackluster offense and porous defense. Any teenager who’s still unproven is going to fail if thrust into that position. Mudiay’s debut was shaky, and he finished with 17 points, 11 turnovers and nine assists in a Nuggets win. For the rest of November and a bit of December, his game ebb and flowed. There would be a couple of games where he dropped 16 or 18 points that were followed up by a single-digit scoring effort that had six or seven turnovers.

The NBA looked new to him, and he had tremendous struggles on both ends of the floor. Mudiay missed 14 games from mid-December to early-January, and he came back looking much better than he did before the injury:

  • Pre-injury: 23 games, 10.7 points, 5.7 assists, 4.0 turnovers, 31 percent shooting
  • Post-injury: 45 games, 13.9 points, 5.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 39 percent shooting

As the games wore on, Mudiay showed more one-on-one potential, and it seemed like his outside shot was slowly coming into form. Even as a rookie, he seldom had issues getting into the lane because of his size and ability to handle the ball, and his passing was crisp as any rookie in recent memory. However, decision-making issues raised their ugly head once again, and Basketball-Reference estimated that 99 of his rookie season turnovers were from bad passes. I don’t know how many people are as lenient as I am, but he gets a bit of a pass because of his inexperience. However, Mudiay was able to take all of those bad plays and learn from them to become a better facilitator.

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He’d finish as the Nuggets third-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, and his 5.5 nightly dimes led all rookies. Mudiay’s busted jump shot was prevalent throughout his rookie season, but at least he didn’t finish last in field goal percentage (36.4) among those who attempted at least 500 shots. As bad as he was, he still shot better than Kobe Bryant!

It takes more than one season to prove yourself as a franchise player, and Mike Malone willingly left Mudiay as the starter going into his second season. To the dismay of the organization, it was much of the same. The poor shot selection and bad decisions still plagued Mudiay, and the move to the bench is Malone putting his foot down. Jamal Murray‘s improvement made the decision just a bit easier because Denver doesn’t lack production, and a move to the bench could be hugely beneficial to the struggling sophomore.

Being placed in a lesser role sucks, especially after spending your entire NBA career as a starter. As bad as it is, it’s not the end of the world, and Mudiay can use this time to reinvent himself entirely. He’s out of the spotlight and has zero expectations now. And — this is the kicker — he’s still young. Mudiay just turned 21 at the beginning of March, and there is going to be a host of guys entering the league this fall who are older than that.

His NBA career is still alive, and he’ll get another shot. Whether it comes with Denver or someone else remains to be seen. It’s futile to hide the fact that Mudiay hasn’t performed well to start his NBA career and that puts his trade value down the train unless the buyer is willing to pick up a project. He’s still on a rookie scale contract, so finances holding up the trade is unlikely.

Just remember that 85-90 percent of the guys in the league need the right system to succeed. Mudiay is far from an All-NBA talent, thus placing him in that bracket.

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