There is little reason for the casual NBA fan to pay attention to the Denver Nuggets this season. They are a bad-to-mediocre team with a ceiling of mediocre-yet-interesting. Where they fall along that spectrum will probably depend on what becomes of Emmanuel Mudiay.
Mudiay, who skipped college ball in favor of getting paid as a pro in China, looked like a steal as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He walked into the starting point-guard position in his rookie season and went on to play 30 minutes of horror-show basketball every night. And, yet, because of the quirks of his position, his obvious talent and some promising stats papered over by the all-around badness, Mudiay remains a tantalizing prospect despite having one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory.
The baseline stats belie just how bad he was: Mudiay averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from the floor and 32 percent from behind the arc. Dig a little deeper and it starts to look worse: His turnover rate was just a hair under 18 percent, and he finished the year with his win shares per 48 at a tidy -0.049. That’s not good! It is in fact very bad!
How does a supposed phenom have a season that bad? By having no idea how to put the ball in the basket. Among qualified players, Mudiay ranked dead last in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. He somehow managed to put up worse shooting numbers than Kobe Bryant, who spent the season heaving up as many shots as possible despite his body being held together by bungee cords. Bryant at least had the excuse of being a shameless gunner and 700 years old. Mudiay managed to be a black hole despite taking 200 fewer shots than Old Man Bryant.
An optimist would point out that Mudiay’s shooting improved in the second half of the season; he shot 39 percent from the floor and 36 percent from 3-point range after the All-Star break. A pessimist would dunk on that optimist’s head by reminding everyone that shooting was far from Mudiay’s only problem — he created just 0.64 points per possession for his team as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, a rate that was nearly doubled up by Steph Curry (1.11) and lagged behind less lofty competition like Jimmy Butler (0.89) and Jamal Crawford (0.82).
Rookies often take a while to find their stroke — Kris Dunn shot 24.2 percent over his last five preseason games — but what makes Mudiay’s shooting stats so ugly is that they weren’t just the result of a broken jumper. He struggled just as much around the basket. He made only 44 percent of the shots he took less than five feet from the rim, a full 15 points below the league average. According to NBA.com, Mudiay made 7.6 drives to the basket per game and converted just 38 percent of the shots he took at the end of those drives. This would maybe be understandable if Mudiay were the size of, say, Earl Boykins and built like a dachshund, but he’s a 6-foot-5 point guard who weighs 200 pounds. Driving to the hoop and finishing strong is supposed to be, like, his whole thing.
If Mudiay were a center or power forward coming off a rookie season this rotten, I imagine that he would have already been written off as an Anthony Bennett-style bust, but point guards are evaluated a little differently. The inherent difficulties of the position are going to produce some ugly statistics in the first season, and the problems that rookie point guards have — unfamiliarity with the speed of the NBA, poor shooting, high turnover rate — are usually the kinds of problems that can be solved. Remember when Russell Westbrook’s effective field goal percentage was .414 in his first season? That’s why FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection model ranks guys like Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton so highly.
And don’t forget that for all Mudiay’s failings, he’s had his moments. It was highlights like this that made him a lottery pick to begin with:
This isn’t to say that Nuggets fans should be feeling great about Mudiay’s future as he heads into his second season running the offense. The inclusion of Westbrook, Mike Conley and John Wall in the comparable players section of his CARMELO comps will surely induce a few fist pumps, but the sight of Sebastian Telfair and Brandon Jennings should leave them in a cold sweat.
Whether Mudiay is able to overcome his growing pains and carry his second-half improvements into this season won’t mean much for the Nuggets’ immediate future — they’re likely a long shot for the playoffs even if Mudiay is great — but it means everything for their long-term plans. Aside from Mudiay and Nikola Jokic, this is a roster almost entirely made up of solid but uninspiring players. Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton are fine basketball players, but they aren’t a group that’s equipped to turn the Nuggets into a consistent playoff contender.
In the coming years, the Nuggets will have to choose which of their good-but-not-great players are worth keeping around and which are better jettisoned. But none of those decisions will matter if the team can’t find a true star or two to anchor the roster. Jokic looks like he’s ready to play the part, but so much still depends on what becomes of Mudiay. At this point, one timeline sees him developing into an oversized point guard with a passable jumper who can use his speed, strength and vision to control the game. The darker timelines see him slogging through a disappointing NBA career, launching jumpers from a trebuchet and never quite catching onto the rhythm of the game. Mudiay will be much closer to one of those destinies at the conclusion of this season, which means it’s probably going to be a very good or very bad year for the Nuggets.