Nothing drives a prospect's NBA draft value quite like upside. And Emmanuel Mudiay is loaded with it.
Early on, three guys have separated themselves into the 2015 No. 1-overall-pick conversation: freshmen centers Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky, as well as Mudiay, the Congolese-American point guard who decided to play this season in China instead of the NCAA.
We've seen Okafor's refined offensive game and Towns' impressive versatility, but nobody is more compelling to evaluate and project than Mudiay, who's had tremendous success in a unique setting against different competition overseas.
However, an ankle injury has complicated things 10 games into the season. Mudiay's team, Guangdong Southern, has replaced him with former NBA guard Will Bynum, and that replacement could ultimately be permanent, as Guangdong just can't afford to wait on Mudiay's recovery.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Mudiay could eventually be released back to the United States, where he'd likely train for the 2015 NBA draft, just as Dante Exum did in 2014 after finishing up early in Australia.
"Sources close to him say that he is going to pull a Dante Exum," a source told SNY.TV's Adam Zagoria. "That is more logical than coming back to play in the D-League."
I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see Mudiay until workouts in June. His camp would be wise to exercise caution, whatever's necessary to avoid risk of a setback. At this point, he'd probably have more to lose than gain by playing competitively elsewhere.
Besides, Mudiay already achieved what should have been his initial goal from the start—to hold his own at a pro level, showcase his extraordinary talent and diminish concern over his weaknesses.
Mudiay looked great before going down. Even if he came back, I'm not sure there's much else he could do to improve his image or standing with scouts.
Check out his stat line during his first nine games (he suffered the injury in Guangdong's 10th contest):
|Nine Games in Chinese Basketball Association|
|FG Percentage||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Steals||3PT Percentage|
Maybe it's fair to question whether his stats were inflated due to a monster 29.5 percent usage rate, per RealGM.com, and mediocre opposing defense. Individual numbers aside, he led Guangdong to an 8-1 record before going down in his 10th game. And as an 18-year-old kid, Mudiay took it to grown men—pros and former NBA picks.
Scouts put stock in that.
In terms of the scouting report, Mudiay is lightning-quick and awfully shifty off the dribble, where he can change direction and create scoring opportunities at will, whether it's for himself or teammates.
He has a strong feel for the game, both as a scorer and facilitator. At 6'5", 200 pounds, he reminds me of a mix between John Wall and Jrue Holiday—big, skilled playmakers who can take over in the half court and play above the rim in the open floor.
An unreliable jumper has weighed down Mudiay's projection. His 32.1 percent three-point mark is subpar, but he did average one made three per game, a positive indicator.
Mudiay flashed the entire package scouts were hoping to confirm, though you still can't break down his No. 1 overall chances without including his competitors in the discussion.
Kentucky's Towns will be in the conversation, given his center size, inside-out skill set and defensive potential. Unfortunately, in arguably the most stacked frontcourt in Division I history, Towns sales' pitch has been muzzled.
Against North Carolina on Dec. 13, he played 19 minutes and finished 0-0 from the floor. He just hasn't had the touches or opportunity to make a convincing No. 1 overall case.
On the other hand, Okafor has everything going for him at Duke, where he's been unstoppable early on as a primary option in the offense. Between the production, efficiency, the polished attack and NBA body, there really isn't much to question—except for the height of his ceiling.
Okafor lacks standout athleticism—or the fuel that powers upside and triggers teams to drool and reach.
Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Andrew Wiggins—most of the recent No. 1 picks pack that superhero explosiveness. And it's just not in Okafor's DNA, even though he is exceptionally skilled.
Given his mismatch size and burst for a point guard, you can argue that Mudiay actually has a higher ceiling than Okafor, who'll be going up against bouncier athletes at his height and taller at the NBA level.
It's almost a similar debate as the one we had last year between Wiggins and Jabari Parker. It was Parker who looked like the safer, more polished talent out of college, but the potential long-term reward attached to Wiggins was too enticing to pass on, given his jump-out-of-the-gym springs, Cheetah-like quickness and 6'8" size for a wing.
Okafor seems to have emerged as the safest option in June's projected field, but Mudiay just might be the bigger "splash" play, which is the one lottery winners traditionally look to make.
And we pretty much knew that coming in. Scouts have been aware of Mudiay's upside all along, as ESPN.com's Joel Francisco tweeted:
Following the point guard's promising stint in China, scouts can officially validate the legitimacy of what drives that upside.
I wouldn't call him the favorite to be drafted first overall, but Mudiay will undoubtedly receive serious consideration, regardless of which team lands the pick on lottery night.
- Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson had his signature game of the season in the Wildcats' beatdown of Michigan on Dec. 13. It was one of those eye-opening performances that should only strengthen his case for a top-10 bid. Johnson scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, having showcased his dynamic drive-and-slash game, as well as some overwhelming defense on lottery candidate Caris LeVert, who finished just 2-of-9 on the night. With Okafor, Towns and Mudiay in a tier of their own at the top, look for Johnson to emerge as one of the next-best options.
- Highly touted freshman Kelly Oubre finally got some burn for Kansas, having finished with season highs in minutes, 17, and points, nine, against Utah on Dec. 13. Don't write off Oubre just yet, despite his 3.4 point-per-game average and 34.8 percent field-goal mark. Nothing can take away from the upside tied to his 6'7" size, electric athleticism, shooting stroke and scoring instincts. As his role increases over the course of the season, look for his confidence and production to ultimately do the same. He's still a potential late-lottery option in our eyes.
- Connecticut sophomore Amida Brimah dropped 40 points on 13-of-13 shooting against Coppin State on Dec. 14, an impressive line no matter how you slice it. Still, nobody on the opposing defense stood taller than 6'9". Brimah, a 7-footer, scored all 13 of his buckets in the paint. Against Texas' monster front line a few games earlier, he struggled badly on 1-of-7 shooting. Translation: Take the 40 points with a grain of salt.
- Louisville's Montrezl Harrell has been a beast all season long, but the three three-pointers and 9-of-10 free throws he made opening night against Minnesota is starting to look a little flukey. Since then, he's 0-of-11 from downtown and 23-of-46 from the line. Harrell is undoubtedly a first-round pick this upcoming June, but I'd temper any expectations regarding his stretch or inside-out potential.
- Talk about a complete transformation—Syracuse senior big man Rakeem Christmas has morphed into the team's go-to scorer after playing the role of limited, opportunistic finisher over the course of his first three seasons. Tied up against Louisiana Tech with only four seconds left, the Orange went to Christmas on the block, who delivered with a textbook jump hook in the lane. After scoring 5.8 points as a junior, he's currently averaging 16.4 points and 8.9 rebounds on 60.4 percent shooting. Christmas' post game has become quite effective early on. Between the strides he's made and his NBA physical profile, Christmas has suddenly emerged as a potentially interesting second-round option.
- Croatian phenom Mario Hezonja has finally started playing regular minutes for Barcelona, and scouts are getting a better handle on his potential. He recently went for 14 points, four assists and five boards against CAI Zaragova after scoring 12 points against Fenerbahce, 15 against Turow Zgorzelec and 13 against Olimpia Milano in a game that sparked his recent rise. He's also hit 12 of his last 26 from downtown. A special type of athlete with 6'8" mismatch size for a wing, Hezonja has monster upside, which is starting to materialize over in Euroleague and the Spanish ACB. The preliminary prognostication: He could be a top-five pick come June.
- Looking for an international draft sleeper? Word is Macedonian guard Cedi Osman is rising up boards after a strong start to the season for Anadolu Efes, the same team that Dario Saric, last year's No. 12 overall selection, currently plays for. One international scout told me Osman's name is "very hot" among the NBA guys and that he could end up being a mid-first to late first-round pick. At 6'6", Osman handles the ball, creates and shoots well. His minutes have been up and down, but he's someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses.