The Emmanuel Mudiay era in Denver begins now. After the Nuggets traded Ty Lawson to the Rockets, Mudiay is the team's clear lead guard and a favorite for Rookie of the Year.
The native of the Democratic Republic of Congo was the No. 7 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft because of his all-around potential. He's athletic, excels in the pick-and-roll and is an unselfish pass-first point guard. But given the Nuggets' so-so roster, it's important for fans to have tempered expectations for Mudiay as a rookie. As great as Mudiay looked in Summer League, Denver's front office shouldn't set the bar too high right away.
Mudiay's best asset is his ball-handling. At just 19 years old, he's already mastered change-of-pace hesitation moves to fake defenders out of their shoes and get into the paint. He's exceptionally quick and able to accelerate to his top gear to blow by defenders.
As Mudiay displays in the clip above, he has immaculate court sense and can find open shooters out of the corner of his eye. That over-the-shoulder kickout requires special velocity and accuracy. Most point guards would have that pass picked off or sail it into the fifth row.
The issue for Mudiay isn't his ability to create space for himself, it's what follows. He has a tendency to leave his feet, which puts him in trouble as a scorer and passer when no open shooters are available. At 6'5, there's no reason for him to do this, since he already has the height to see over the defense.
As sharp as he looked in Summer League, he also had a 1.2 assist-turnover ratio. A chunk of his turnovers came from leaving his feet and making off-target passes like in the clip above. Others were a result of trying to do too much by forcing passes or dribbling into traffic.
Mudiay hasn't been gifted an ideal roster either. There are only four decent perimeter shooters in Denver's rotation: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye and Jameer Nelson. The Nuggets ranked 28th in three-point shooting percentage last season. Floor spacing will be problematic for them, meaning defenses will be able to collapse into the paint and overplay the rolling big men. That will make Mudiay's job more difficult.
Without any threats on the perimeter, Mudiay will see five defenders sucked in the paint to contain rolling big men Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic. Mudiay has a tendency to try threading the needle too much, so he will be turnover prone as a rookie.
In the long run, this will benefit him. Nothing will come easy for Denver and he'll quickly see what works and what doesn't on this level. Mudiay has a good coach in Michael Malone and a veteran mentor in Nelson. They will be crucial in keeping Mudiay focused on "the process," since he'll be susceptible to the emotional ups and downs of a losing situation.
Yet limiting the pressure on Mudiay as a young prospect will be paramount, since failed expectations can be detrimental to a player's confidence and therefore his ultimate potential in the NBA. A player like Nelson gives Mudiay a veteran to lean on for advice, but also a player for Malone to use to right the ship on the court. Trading Lawson and signing Nelson has significant value beyond the spreadsheet. The personalities in a locker room can't be overlooked, especially when player development is an essential goal.
This is especially true for Mudiay because he isn't exactly the type of player who will be able to go out and "get buckets" as a rookie. Fans may become frustrated with him if he continues to shoot a low percentage. He hit just 2-of-14 three-pointers and only half his free throws in Summer League, which is certainly indicative of what's to come his rookie year since he's consistently struggled from the perimeter at every level.
Mudiay has a lot of glitches with his jumper, especially off the dribble. He had multiple air balls and many front-rim misses in Summer League, which can be attributed due to his low release and bad habit of shooting on the way down. He also shoots "up and down" and doesn't sweep his feet forward, meaning he doesn't generate enough power from his lower body in order to get his shot attempts over the front rim.
His lack of a jumper will affect him in other ways. Defenders will go under screens, daring him to shoot from mid-range. They will also sag off him from the perimeter, forcing him into difficult entry passes that cause turnovers. Off the ball, they'll be able to roam off him, which hinders the effectiveness of his teammates.
The immediate expectations for Mudiay as a shooter must therefore be conservative. He will likely shoot around 25 percent from three and below 60 percent from the line. That's Michael Carter-Williams bad in half-court situations.
The glimpses will come because of his speed in transition and in the pick-and-roll.
Creative finishes around the rim should give Nuggets fans hope for the future. With his explosiveness, he'll also put a defender on a poster at some point during the season.
But expecting Mudiay to be even an average shooter next season is a mistake, and he won't be a magical passer on a consistent basis because of the team's lack of talent. He'll show flashes, but frustrating mistakes will occur, like they do for most every young point guard. And despite his long-term potential as a defender, even expecting him to lock down the stud ball-handlers in the stacked Western Conference right away would also be a mistake.
With the level of opportunity Mudiay is set to receive, he'll likely be in the running for Rookie of the Year, but progress shouldn't be measured by his per-game stats. The key for Mudiay, and for the Nuggets as a whole, is their individual and collective skill development. If Mudiay steadily takes fewer risks as a passer, it'll lead to more efficient shot attempts from his teammates. Adapting to his teammates' tendencies will also be of utmost importance. Finally, Mudiay must simply learn how to deal with the pressures of day-to-day life in the NBA. Those lessons will pay off down the road, but not today.
Mudiay is fortunate to be in a situation that can provide him an early opportunity, but at just 19 years old with underdeveloped talent surrounding him, he won't be a savior right away. This experience will help him be a better player down the line, which is what should excite Nuggets fans the most.
This scouting report is from my 2015 NBA Draft Guide, which can be downloaded here.