LAS VEGAS — Point guards at Summer League have the power of the ball in their hands. Combine that with them trying to impress someone to give them a job (ideally with an NBA team, for most it will be overseas) and you get one thing: Shots. Good shots, bad shots, but lots of shots. Guards are trying to impress scouts/GMs with their scoring. They want an eye-catching stat line.
Emmanuel Mudiay has stood out against that backdrop.
“The first thing you see is he is a true point guard…” Denver Nuggets Summer League coach Micah Nori said. “Guys are going to love to play with him, they are going to continue to run for him because he is a pass-first point guard….
“And I see him being able to lead. With his ability to pass and his unselfishness, guys are going to want to follow him.”
The Nuggets have followed Mudiay to a 2-0 start at Summer League, and he’s been the most impressive rookie so far in getting there.
The 19-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who slid down the draft board to No. 7 has looked like an impressive NBA talent so far under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
“We’ve put the ball in his hands and given him a lot of freedom, and there’s good reason for that,” Nori said.
Mudiay has a flair to his game — he pushes the pace, and he’s fond of behind-the-back and jump passes (a little too fond of the latter). He’s got a great change of pace dribble and has shown some real explosion to the rim. More importantly, he recognizes the defense and attacks its weaknesses. Through two games, he has averaged 15 points and eight assists a game. He’s shooting just 40 percent overall (and 11 percent from three) but knows when to attack and get buckets.
“I haven’t been happy with the way I’ve been shooting, and I’ve been putting in the work and I’m going to keep shooting, but at the same time I am comfortable,” Mudiay said of his play so far at Summer League. “I like getting my teammates involved.”
What has most impressed with Mudiay is the maturity of his game. He has a controlled aggression.
He’s looks like a guy who played against men in China, not college boys. There is no panic under pressure; the game is not moving too fast for him. At one point late in the first half Sunday the Kings threw a hard double-team at him, and he calmly controlled his dribble, pulled the defenders out on the floor, and then hit the open man for a clean look at the rim.
“I feel like playing overseas professionally, that really helped me,” Mudiay said of the patience in his game. “Coming from high school to pro ball, in high school I was rushing everything. Straight out to China I was rushing everything. But I’ve got to let the game come to me.”
“When things are chaotic he remains calm, he’s very comfortable with his abilities, and he’s able to make pretty much any pass at any time, which is big time,” Nori said. “And I think the one thing about Emmanuel that allows him to do that is his skill level with his ball handling. And the other thing is he’s a big kid, a big strong kid. Some guys, when they get pressure, turn their back to the floor, the one thing he’s able to do is be facing forward, facing that rim, and that’s why he can make any pass at any time. He finds guys that are open and hits them on time and on target.”
Mudiay already knows how to use his NBA-ready physique to create space — he drives into defenders, puts them back on their heals, then pulls up looking for the pass or shot. He hits first, he doesn’t wait for the defense to hit him. Is that something else he learned in China?
“I got that from my brothers,” Mudiay said with a laugh. “Just playing with them all the time they used to try to bully me, and I’d try to bully them back. I was so little that just stuck with me. So when I play older, more physical guys, taller guys, even stronger guys, I try to hit them first so they know the next play I’m coming in.”
Nobody should read too much into two NBA Summer League games — two Vegas games matter about as much as presidential race polling right now, we’re nowhere near when it gets real. The list of NBA Summer League MVPs is littered with “who’s that?” This is not the NBA. How all of this translates to games in November or even February is a question still to be answered. And how he will ultimately compare to D’Angelo Russell (who has shown strong moments but is more shoot first) or Kristaps Porzingis will not be answered for years.
But quality NBA players tend to stand out in the chaos of Summer League — and Mudiay stands out.
He’s not your typical Summer League point guard. And that could be excellent news for the Denver Nuggets.