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Gold Nugget Emmanuel Mudiay Looks Like More Than Rookie of the Year Candidate

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 10, 2015

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 9: Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets is seen during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 9, 2015 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

DENVER—Two weeks into his career with the Denver Nuggets, Emmanuel Mudiay has already faced off against a gauntlet of top-notch NBA point guards. He battled against former Denver floor general Ty Lawson in his rookie debut and has since clashed with Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard

And, despite his easy-going demeanor and the limited number of years he's spent on this planet, he's held his own. 

"I keep on reminding everyone that he's 19," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said after his star rookie was up to the challenge against Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. "I have to remind myself of that at times."

Handed the starting job from day one, Mudiay has averaged 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks during his first seven appearances. Even when including the shabby shooting percentage (33 percent from the field) and turnover woes (4.9 per game) that so often plague first-year floor generals, it's not hard to see a young man who can be molded into a star. 

Some players shrink when faced with such a daunting debut in the world's premier basketball league. Even for Mudiay, who spent time with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association after high school and was justifiably hyped as a potential top-three pick, the omnipresence of tough point guard matchups has to be a bit intimidating. 

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 13:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors tries to steal the ball from Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets at ORACLE Arena on October 13, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It may hold down some of his raw numbers in the present, but the brutally difficult start will only pay dividends down the road. Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post, explained as much to Bleacher Report after Mudiay played the part of fourth-quarter hero against the Blazers. 

"If he didn't know the NBA was a very difficult place—which he did—he definitely knows now...I think it's good and bad," Dempsey said. "It means he's going to have some rough nights, but it also means he's going to get the experience he needs to be successful, probably faster having gone through that.

"I think the one thing he's learning is that it's probably a little bit faster, and the athletes are a little bit longer, and they can reach passes that other defenders couldn't in earlier stops in his career. So he's figuring all that out, and I think he's doing a pretty decent job of getting it all sorted out in his head."

While he's still figuring out the nuances of the above-the-neck game, he's already starting to shine on the court. 

Monday's performance against Rip City was easily the best showing of his young career, as he managed to drop 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks while shooting 6-of-12 from the field and coughing the ball up just twice. In a matchup with a point guard who's made the Western Conference All-Star squad each of the last two seasons, it was the teenager who got the last laugh, with a block on Lillard that swung the momentum toward the Nuggets, who ultimately won 108-104.

"I just did what I could," Mudiay said of his rejection. "I used my length. Dame, he's real aggressive, so I knew he was going to take those shots going in, and I just did what I could by staying in front of him and blocking the shot."

If that wasn't enough, he pinned a second Lillard shot to the backboard, essentially sealing the Nuggets' first Pepsi Center victory of the young campaign. And that only came after he knocked down a clutch pull-up jumper along the left baseline to open up a four-point margin with under a minute to play: 

The plays themselves are special. The context makes them even better. 

Mudiay had every reason to succumb to the pressure in this game. Instead, he showed off the mentality and forgetfulness of a future superstar, compartmentalizing the turnovers he gave up earlier in favor of focusing on the play at hand. Despite a four-point play by Lillard late in the third quarter that sent the Blazers on a run, Mudiay was able to right the ship and remain in the moment as the clock ticked down toward triple zeroes. 

This is exactly what the Nuggets want to see from the young man they selected at No. 7 in the 2015 NBA draft. They need to see him staying aggressive in spite of any negative plays, because he's at his best when he's probing a defense and attempting to drive into the paint. It's easier for the organization to live with his forcing the issue and learning from his mistakes than to watch him play passively. 

Or, as he put it, like a robot.

"It's growing," Mudiay said. "My confidence level is getting higher and higher. But at the same time, I have to tell myself to play my game. Even though Coach wants the plays to be ran—he told me himself to take what the defense gives you. I feel like some of those games, I was too robotic."

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 09:  Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets dishes the ball off against Meyers Leonard #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers at Pepsi Center on November 9, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Blazers 108-104. NOTE TO USE
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When Mudiay isn't just going through the motions, it's easy to see why Malone, normally a reserved realist, can become so effusive with his praise.

"I just loved the plays that he made, and late in the game, I put the ball in his hands," Malone said. "It was a great opportunity for him to grow up. This was a great experience, and you can't duplicate this in practice. And he made big plays for us. The great thing is: He's not scared. He didn't shy away from it. He wanted it. And making plays not just on offense. I thought his defense at times was excellent."

Late-game opportunities are important for his long-term development, and it's undeniably positive that he's getting those chances early on. Especially because the Nuggets don't just want him to grow into a Rookie of the Year contender. 

He will be one if for no other reason than the wealth of opportunities he'll receive in a league that doesn't often hand such large roles to first-year players. But even if he falls short in the individual race against Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and others, the developmental hopes will remain rather high. 

We're not just looking at a player who can earn first-year accolades, but rather, as Dempsey foretold, a point guard who can compete for All-Star berths and—if everything breaks right—some MVP consideration. 

"I think eventually we're talking about a top-five point guard in the NBA," Dempsey said. "So an elite-level point guard in the NBA. What goes with it is All-Stars, and all that kind of stuff. Will he be an MVP? That sort of depends on all that other stuff—who else is in the NBA, and what else is around him. But I think the Nuggets wanted an elite-level point guard, and I think they're eventually going to have one with Emmanuel Mudiay."

Just don't let the 1-guard get wind of that. He's too focused on the success of his squad to spend any time garnering hopes of individual awards and future recognition.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 09:  Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets controls the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers at Pepsi Center on November 9, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Blazers 108-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

"I'm my hardest critic, so I still feel like I could've done some stuff better...No [I don't focus on individual awards]," he told Bleacher Report. "Just focused on the team. If I do what I'm supposed to do, all the individual awards will come."

He's 100 percent correct, but those supporting the Nuggets organization don't have to be quite so driven on immediately dismissing what's happened in favor of what's to come. Just seven games into Mudiay's career, we've already seen tangible improvements. 

Nov 9, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) dribbles the ball around Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When he drives to the hoop, it's with a purpose, and that enables him to avoid getting caught in the air without a plan—something that was happening too often in his first few games. He's looking to make plays while keeping his head up, which allows him to use his fantastic court vision and passing chops. 

Coming into the league, Mudiay's biggest purported weakness was the inability to connect on many shots. And while he's struggled to finish around the rim—deterred by the excessive length and quickness of NBA defenders—it's awfully encouraging that he's drilled 37 percent of his shots from beyond the arc while taking 3.9 per game. 

In addition to his trouble finishing plays in the paint, however, his decision-making hasn't always been advantageous. That's where we should expect to see him improve most substantially. 

"The turnovers were a problem in the preseason and then early on in the regular season," Dempsey said. "He was just trying things that had worked in China, that had worked in high school, but just couldn't work in the NBA. 

"Once he kind of got it figured out, as to what defenses are presented to him and how the athletes...how quick they are, ... he can start making decisions off of that, and we've seen a lot of growth in him in that area right off the bat."

It's already astounding how much better the mental aspects of this 19-year-old's game look after just two weeks. He's starting to settle in, and the turnovers are already trending in the right direction, as you can see by looking at his game-by-game turnover percentages: 

No, there won't be an unmitigated decline during the rest of the 2015-16 campaign. That's pretty much impossible for anyone, much less a teenager still learning the ropes in the NBA. 

Mudiay will inevitably suffer through more rough patches, but at least Malone and the rest of the Nuggets coaching staff are willing to let him do exactly that. They already trust him in crucial moments, and that's not going to change as he grows even more comfortable running the show in the Association. 

The goal here isn't to produce the next Rookie of the Year, even if the Mile High City hasn't boasted one of those since David Thompson took home the award at the end of the 1975-76 season—back when the Nuggets were still a part of the ABA. 

This organization is thinking even loftier—and for good reason. 

Mudiay won't knock down 15-foot pull-up jumpers in key possessions and set new career highs in the scoring column each time he takes to the court. He won't reject shots from All-Star point guards whenever he's guarding one in crunch time. 

But each time he does, it reinforces the belief that he's the new centerpiece of a franchise ready to climb back up the Western Conference hierarchy in coming seasons. That means so much more than any individual award. 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Nov. 10's games. All quotes obtained firsthand. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

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