Denver Nuggets rookie Emmanuel Mudiay was one of the brightest stars of the Las Vegas summer league, showing an uncommon poise for his age and terrific court vision. Yet, seeing as how summer league performances can easily lead us astray—looking at you, Anthony Randolph and Jerryd Bayless—it seemed smart to get an in-depth take on Mudiay from an NBA scout. He agreed, on the condition of anonymity.
This was useful, but it was not enough. Different perspectives reveal different things, in basketball and in life, and this is a question too important to leave to a single source. So, rather than rely just on the scout's evaluation of Mudiay, I decided to get a second opinion. From my perch behind the basket, I scoured the crowd of the Thomas and Mack Center until I found someone with the perspective I sought. He was hunched over his seat, elbow planted firmly on his thigh as his hand supported his head by the chin. It was the unmistakable look of a teenager bored as shit at a basketball game. Perfect.
I walked over to his seat and introduced myself, first to his mom to ask permission so as not to look like a random creep, then to the bored-out-of-his-goddamn-mind kid, who would probably prefer to be called by his real name—Kaden. I told Kaden of my mission, thinking it would maybe brighten his day at least a little. His response, a begrudging "sure" that could bring down the Great Wall of China with the force of its apathy, showed me just how much I underestimated the power of a 14-year-old to be all the way over something.
Q: What has stood out to you, good or bad, about Mudiay's defense?
Scout: Like a lot of young players (and older ones, for that matter), he ball-watches when he is on the weak side. He's very slow to recognize and very slow to "sink" down from the foul line or nail area to the low block when he is on the weak side. He needs to be able to use his physical size to drop down and neutralize bigs when Denver is helping the helper or rotating.
He is too upright on his on-ball defense, and needs to establish a more athletic posture.
Against pick-and-roll, he does a poor job of closing the space towards his check before trying to fight over the screen. If he's going over the screen, he also needs to get lower fighting over. He did a good job staying disciplined and staying with the strong side corner on ATL drive and kick. I couldn't tell if this was good defense or a combination of confusion and inexperience.
Kaden: It's okay.
Q: At this point in time, what is Mudiay's greatest skill?
Scout: His physical strength off the dribble and getting into the paint, again off the dribble. He's excellent in the open court in transition. His ability to make long accurate passes—cross court, skip, et cetera—either one or two handed, easily off of the pick and roll.
He has an excellent handle in both full court and half court situations, although he gets away with palming or carrying the ball ball a lot [which is] one of my pet peeves. He also has an excellent array of pass and ball fakes that he uses to freeze both his defender and the help defenders.
He already carries himself and conducts the half court offense like a veteran. The other players seem to follow.
Q: What's the one thing he needs to improve the most?
Scout: His jumpshot. Or his general perimeter shooting: from mid-range, deep, and pulling up off of the dribble. Especially in pick and roll.
To me, mechanically, he brings the ball too far back past his forehead before releasing. This produces a poor elbow angle and results in an inconsistent release. It does not always allow the motion to be a nice up-and-through. His form is a little better off of the dribble, probably because he is shooting in more of a rhythm, but will probably remain really inconsistent for the foreseeable future.
Kaden: His scoring. Like, finishing around the rim.
Q: Is he making good reads out of the pick-and-roll?
Scout: Not too bad. He will often try and throw a home run type of pass, which will probably lead to early turnover problems. But you'll live with that because of the creativity and upside. He will need to clean-up his ball handling angles and set-up coming into pick-and-rolls. He already uses some nice hesitation moves to set-up the high and angled pick-and-roll.
He tried to force action sometimes. He needs to work on his ball handling technique when trying to split the pick-and-roll. He also needs to do a better job of "playing" the screen setter's defender. That's the player you're watching, more than your own individual defender.
Kaden: ...I guess?
At this last question, Kaden actually graced me with a smile, even a laugh. If Mudiay can make a sulky teenager smile, that alone should make him the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year. At least.