In the 2015 NBA draft conversation, there are two guards, and then there's everybody else.
Emmanuel Mudiay, a consensus top-five recruit, has been "the guy" since the summer, even after deciding to play in China instead of Division I college hoops. His talent is no secret and well-documented from his time at Prime Prep Academy in Dallas to events like the McDonald's All-American game, Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit.
Even when Mudiay's season abroad ended in November following an ankle injury, he still seemed like the only guard who'd be worth targeting with a top-five pick. But that's just no longer the case.
Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell has been flat-out spectacular. Take your eyes off him for a minute and you might miss something. He recently overtook Duke's Jahlil Okafor as the leading freshman scorer in the country while separating himself from every backcourt prospect.
Truthfully, I'm not sure we've seen an 18-year-old college guard this good since Kyrie Irving.
Mudiay wasn't so bad himself during his 10-game stint with Guangdong Southern. I wouldn't get too carried away by his numbers, given the sample size, lack of defense played in China—there are eight guys in the CBA who average more than 30 points—and the fact that his team has won 24 of 25 games since he went down.
But as an 18-year-old kid facing grown men and other professionals, Mudiay's eye-test results seemed to validate the initial hype.
Check out how Mudiay's stats abroad stacked up with what Russell is doing for the Buckeyes:
|2014-15 Stats (Averages)|
|Points||FG Percentage||Assists||Rebounds||3PT Percentage||Steals|
|Mudiay (10 games in China)||17.7||.497||5.9||6.0||.300||1.6|
|Russell (21 games)||19.4||.477||5.1||5.2||.444||1.8|
They project as lead guards, but they each have different approaches based their fundamental and physical strengths.
|Mudiay||6'5"||200 pounds||6'8.5" (Nike Hoop Summit, 2014)|
|Russell||6'5"||180 pounds||6'8.5" (LeBron James camp, 2013)|
While both prospects have terrific tools for ball-handlers, Mudiay is the stronger, more athletic of the two. And that's what ultimately helps drive his superior eye-opening upside.
Mudiay's quick first step and explosive last one translate to easier scoring opportunities, while Russell relies on difficult shot-making or threading the needle.
Russell just doesn't have the burst that fuels Mudiay's John Wall comparisons in terms of his ceiling.
Mudiay can create offense out of nothing in the half court, where he breaks down defenses off wicked change-of-direction shiftiness that leads to scrambling help defenders and open looks for teammates.
Of course, with that 6'5" size, Mudiay doesn't have too much trouble separating into his own shots one-on-one either.
Meanwhile, he's even more of a weapon in the open floor, where his size, speed and body control are built for the break.
On the other hand, Russell is shooting just 48.9 percent in transition (shots taken within 10 seconds of a possession) with only 18 made buckets at the rim in 21 games, per Hoop-Math.com.
He doesn't get as much separation or above-the-rim bounce. Russell essentially operates with a smaller margin for error. Without the jet pack that's seemingly strapped to Mudiay's back, Russell has to be more precise with his jumper, floater and dishes. And it's a good thing he is.
Though Mudiay's no stiff with the ball, he's not as slick as Russell, who puts on shows highlighting his diverse yet polished offensive skills.
Russell's most glowing strength might actually be his passing, which is why many believe he'll play point guard in the pros despite his volume scoring numbers and combo label out of high school.
It's not just superhero vision—his ability to execute is unlike anyone else's. We've seen him dish out one-handed spinning darts through traffic and no-look bullets to cutters from a standstill position on the perimeter.
Scouts were "gushing" over Russell's passing ability, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, and that was before the season even started:
He's averaging 5.1 assists per game playing alongside senior Shannon Scott, who also handles the ball and averages 6.7 assists himself. As a playmaker, only five players in the country have produced more points than Russell so far, per Sports-Reference.com.
Mudiay isn't as clever, but he's probably a bigger threat to create shots for teammates with dribble manipulation. He's at his best driving and kicking—getting into the defense's second level and finding his open teammates.
He also has a good feel out of pick-and-rolls, where he can hit the screener with a bounce pass or attack the open space.
And though his decision-making isn't always spot on, Mudiay has looked more than willing to prioritize facilitating over hunting for shots, despite his ability to easily create them.
If only he could shoot like Russell, this wouldn't even be a debate.
Mudiay's jumper isn't broken, but it's never been consistent enough to ever qualify as a strength. He shot just 30 percent from downtown in China, and for what it's worth, he made only one of nine three-point attempts combined between the McDonald's game, Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit.
Russell has proved to be a lethal shooter early on, making 2.9 three-pointers per game at a scorching 44.4 percent clip. Defenses must respect his ability to pull up, but he's just as deadly operating off the ball, where he's got the size and spot-up stroke to also play 2-guard.
His jumper (and floater) are the driving forces behind this recent scoring outburst in which he's averaged 25.7 points over his last four games. From deep threes and pull-ups to runners in the lane and fall-aways in the post, Russell has shown extraordinary ability to connect on contested jumpers. He's averaging 19.4 points, yet he only takes 3.9 free throws per game and 21.8 percent of his shots at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com.
Russell's ball skills are simply at a whole other level. As for Mudiay, he's got the skill set in place—it's just not as refined, something he can work on as he develops.
Mudiay versus Russell
The traditional way to measure upside is by athleticism, and in this case, there's no arguing who the better athlete is. If you were building a point guard in a lab, you'd want him to look like Mudiay.
And the kid can obviously play. He's a scorer and playmaker whose game is held back by a shaky but correctable outside stroke.
On paper, he's a dynamite mismatch with arguably as much upside as anyone in the projected field. Mudiay will certainly be worthy of top-three consideration when he declares this upcoming June.
But there's just something about Russell.
We saw it over his past few games, like in Ohio State's two-point win over Northwestern Thursday, when he scored every point for his team over the final eight minutes and 21 seconds. Or against Indiana two days later—after trailing 9-2 to start, he scored or assisted on the team's next eight field goals and ultimately took the game into his own hands.
He's flashed the intangibles—maturity, leadership, killer instinct—that enhance his appeal by building his credibility as a winner.
"I just told myself whoever was guarding me I was gonna destroy them," Russell told Northeast Ohio Media Group's Bill Landis after dropping 32 points on Sacred Heart of November 23.
Guys like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Irving and others are proof you don't need explosive above-the-rim springs to reach All-Star heights. They've carved out paths to stardom with exceptional skill and feel for the game. And I'm betting on Russell following that same path.
Look for Russell's name to emerge as a possible top-three draft option while Mudiay continues to rehab his ankle and play the waiting game.
- It's getting harder to ignore Indiana junior guard Yogi Ferrell, who just scored 24 points against Maryland on Thursday and 26 against Ohio State on Sunday. On the year, his assists are up and turnovers down, while he's shooting it 43.6 percent from downtown. We've seen smaller guards than the 6'0", 178-pound Ferrell, who projects as an Isaiah Thomas (Phoenix Suns) type of breakdown spark plug.
- After the hot start, Texas freshman Myles Turner's weaknesses are coming out over the past few weeks. He went 2-of-9 in a loss to Oklahoma, 3-of-8 to West Virginia, 2-of-9 against TCU and 4-of-11 in a loss to Kansas. While he is polished as a shooter, he rarely gets featured in the post, where he's just not strong or athletic. And as a big man, that could really hurt his value.
- Kentucky freshman Devin Booker just continues to score and shoot, most recently going for 18 points Saturday against South Carolina. While he'll attract NBA attention with his 50 percent three-ball, he's also a balanced open-floor scorer who can finish cuts and slashes. I like the J.J. Redick comparison in terms of his NBA ceiling.
- Washington sophomore Robert Upshaw, who transferred from Fresno State in 2013, has been dismissed from the team, per the team's official Twitter account. He was leading the country in shot-blocking and building a strong first-round case. Assuming he declares this summer, he'll enter the draft with bright red flags, though the talent is obviously there. Chances are someone overlooks his issues and gambles, but it looks like we've seen the last of him at the Division I level.
CBA and advanced stats courtesy of RealGM.com unless otherwise noted.