By Jack Ryan
Remember all the pre-NBA draft talk in Philly?
It was dominated by which supreme point guard should the Sixers take at 3— D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay?
It didn’t even matter that few fans had seen Russell on the court for Ohio State and NO ONE had seen Mudiay, who played sparingly last year in China.
Then the Lakers snagged Russell at 2, leaving 6-11, 270-pound Jahlil Okafor available for the Sixers to snap up.
So what happened to mystery man Mudiay?
A packed house for the Kings and Nuggets, who combined for 59 wins, showed up in Vegas to find out.
Actually, the object of their attention was a fairly easy guess: the Nuggets’ Mudiay, the NBA’s international man of mystery, the greatest incoming rookie that nobody ever saw. Until now.
Before the draft, Mudiay became legendary for reasons nobody could quite reveal. He never played a minute of college basketball, didn’t scrimmage during the combines and only worked out behind closed doors for teams auditioning him. His only highlights were restricted to YouTube and even those clips were too limited to draw any conclusions about how good he might be in the NBA. It was almost like his absence made him NBA teams’ heart grow fonder.
Fans of teams drafting in the top six or seven clamored for a player who didn’t enjoy the popularity bump of the NCAA tournament, as Justise Winslow did. Yet basketball folks on the inside and out saw glimpses of a player with a 6-foot-5 NBA body and detectable skills and sensed Mudiay would overcome the handicap of being only 19 years old and barely tested during his one year spent playing professionally in China.
Well. The early returns, based on a pair of Summer League games, appear to confirm the favorable suspicions about the No. 7 overall draft pick. Mudiay threw a perfect behind-the-back pass on the break Sunday against the Kings and showed an ability to take a step-back 3-pointer and also attack the rim. He gave the Cox crowd what it wanted to see. Clearly, Mudiay is an aggressive and skilled point guard who could, if nothing else, put the Nuggets on the radar this fall.
“My first impression is he seems so much older and more mature,” said Kings coach Mike Malone. “What a great feel for the game, a student of the game. He’s always watching and observing and studying. And he asks a lot of questions. Good questions.”
Well, here’s one question Mudiay hasn’t asked, but perhaps wonders: Will Ty Lawson be in the mix for Denver next season?
Hopefully for the sake of Malone, a first-year coach, and the growth of the Nuggets, the solution is favorable one way or another. The Nuggets are anxious for a fresh reset after a pair of poor seasons. If there are doubts about Lawson, they should do everything to make sure he gets a fresh start himself somewhere else. Lawson is the elephant in the room, the holdover point guard who was once considered a big part of the Nuggets’ future; last season he averaged 15.2 points and 9.6 assists and was very respectable from deep. But then a series of events combined to raise legitimate questions about his status. The Nuggets began to lose, and Lawson’s production flat-lined, and then Lawson’s behavior turned strange. Is he really the leader they want during their rebuild?
He was arrested in January on suspicion of drinking and driving and refused a breath test after going 61 mph in a 35 mph zone. He tweeted “I wish” to a fan’s response about being traded to Dallas in April. Last month he was filmed telling friends “told you, I’m going to Sacramento, bro.”
The Nuggets did hear offers for Lawson before and after the Draft, but because he’s still on the roster, you can imagine every team tried to low-ball Denver, sensing the Nuggets were desperate. Teams believe the Nuggets don’t want Lawson around come training camp and possibly poisoning the atmosphere, so they circle like sharks.