At least the Knicks have Kristaps Porzingis. That’s what fans, media, and probably the Knicks front office said every day for the past three seasons. After every disappointing New York loss against the Bucks last week, those seven words were on repeat by every Knicks fan. No matter how much the darkness would engulf the team, Porzingis’ star shined brightly, providing a way out towards the light. Unfortunately for New York, a supernova just occurred on their supergiant star. The Knicks do not have Kristaps Porzingis, but now they have Emmanuel Mudiay. That’s exciting, right?
Near the end of last Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, New York, Denver, and Dallas engaged in a three-team trade sending Doug McDermott to Dallas, Devin Harris to Denver, and Mudiay to New York. There were 2nd-round picks with swaps thrown in too, but nothing truly important. The move, according to Knicks GM Scott Perry, is a part of the Knicks “talent-acquisition phase” for the franchise. Perry, along with coach Jeff Hornacek, believes that Mudiay and New York’s current “point guard of the future” Frank Ntilikina can play with one another and push one another to be better.
Well right off the bat, the pairing of Mudiay and Ntilikina look to be promising. Mudiay in his Knicks debut was a +2 with 14 points on 44% true shooting and 10 assists, while Ntilikina was a +8 with 12 points on 68.5% true shooting. Ntilikina also moved the ball well despite dishing out one assist. Both players looked comfortable playing together, driving and kicking off of pick and rolls and being aggressive on offense. Defense, on the contrary, was almost as disastrous as it could be for Mudiay. He was consistently caught in screens as Victor Oladipo torched him on effectively every possession. Silver lining: Victor Oladipo torches everyone.
Yesterday’s game against the Pacers is a clear example as to why the front office traded for Mudiay. He’s a tall, athletic guard who pushes the pace and creates for others off of pick and rolls and drives to the basket. Mudiay’s combination of size, skill, and athleticism truly make him an intriguing prospect. He has a ton of potential, but the question is can that potential be unlocked.
New York is banking on a fresh change of scenery and their player development staff to work wonders on Mudiay. It clearly was not working in Denver. The Knicks were smart to buy low on Mudiay since the risk is minimal. But there is one glaring concern that the combination of hope and potential future success tends to mask: Mudiay has been awful in Denver.
Here are some key numbers for Mudiay over his three-year career:
(note: hPPR is Holyfield’s passing metric, which is both an improvement on John Hollinger’s pure passer rating and the assist-to-turnover ratio)
Outside of shooting (more on that later), Mudiay has either stagnated or regressed. He has been one of the worst guards in the NBA, according to these key advanced metrics. And I know what you’re yelling right now: “Advanced stats aren’t the end all, be all!” You’re absolutely right, they are not; however, below is a table of Mudiay’s on/off differentials, per Basketball-Reference.
For what it’s worth, Mudiay’s top two five-man lineups, in terms of total possessions, are +11.1 and +3.8, respectively, per Cleaning The Glass (paywall folks, sorry). The top lineup may have more to do with Nikola Jokic playing in it, though (it has to do with Nikola Jokic). The culprit is Mudiay’s poor defense, and “poor” is an understatement. If you’re skeptical of both Mudiay’s DRPM and DRTG plus-minus, below is a table of his play type defensive stats.
In the parenthesis are the percentiles for the respective stats. Outside of isolation defense, Mudiay has, again, either stagnated or regressed as a defender. He doesn’t do a good job navigating around screens, as he is either too eager to switch or simply gets obliterated. This, of course, puts the defense in a very vulnerable position. Pick and rolls and any actions off a screen are foundational aspects of contemporary NBA offenses. If you cannot navigate around screens, you cannot play.
The way Mudiay plays Spencer Dinwiddie quite concerning. He stays in front of Dinwiddie, despite the pick, but then overcommits as he tries to go over the screen. He has ample time to recover but instead forces Kenneth Faried on an island against Dinwiddie, who promptly drains the shot. The highlight before as Mason Plumlee switches onto Dinwiddie appears to be coordinated. But look at how Mudiay gives so much space and just allows to be swallowed up to force the switch. It was a matchup the Nets are happy to take.
What makes Mudiay’s defense even more frustrating is that he has the athleticism to recover easily. It’s just not a regular occurrence at all.
Sure, it’s not the best recovery and Shane Larkin still makes the shot. Unlike the other clips above, Mudiay is at least committed to contesting Larkin’s shot and getting over the screen.
Defense isn’t the only thing holding Mudiay back; he also struggles with finishing at the rim. On 140 shot attempts at the rim on the season, Mudiay is shooting 45.7%, per NBA.com, a figure that is well below league average. The way he attacks the rim is similar to Derrick Rose last season for the Knicks where he flings himself to try to draw contact and instead falls to the ground.
Mudiay needs to improve upon finishing at the rim in order to truly unlock his offensive potential. He’s already a capable driver and a threat in transition, but that’s largely due to his size and athleticism. Mudiay is a capable, willing, and relatively skilled passer out of these situations, a skill New York desperately needs.
If there is one thing holding Mudiay back as a lead guard, it would be his turnovers. He’s eighth in turnovers per 100 possessions and 22nd in turnover percentage amongst 131 qualified guards, per Basketball-Reference. Playing with another guard in Ntilikina should help cut the turnovers down, but it’s not like French Sinatra is exemplary at ball control either. Ntilikina is second in turnover percentage.
Despite the issues, the one thing we can all point to as definitive improvement is his 3-point shooting. Mudiay is shooting 37.3% from behind the arc and 38.6% on catch and shoot 3-point shots, per NBA.com. Last season, he shot 31.5% and 36.2%, respectively. This example of improvement does provide hope that Mudiay is capable of correcting his flaws. With that said, he still has to work on his shooting.
Notice the distinct difference between Mudiay’s makes and misses? His footwork on misses is completely out of rhythm, kicking his right leg forward and his left leg back. On his makes, Mudiay is set, balanced, and no/minimal leg kick. Jeff Hornacek and company need to address this in the offseason.
The evidence presented above isn’t all that impressive. Mudiay hasn’t been the promising player as projected during the 2015 draft. He’s going to turn 22 years old next month, so there is always room to improve. Hell, we are currently watching him improve his shooting. It’s entirely possible that Mudiay is a late bloomer who simply needs time to figure things out and the right opportunity. For all we know, playing in New York with Ntilikina and Porzingis (maybe?) is what Mudiay needs.
But even compared to other late bloomers — Chauncey Billups, Kyle Lowry, Steve Nash, Goran Dragic, and this year’s Victor Oladipo — Mudiay is significantly behind schedule. Per Basketball-Reference, Mudiay has the lowest offensive rating, true shooting percentage, PER, box plus-minus, win shares, and VORP of the aforementioned group of players over their first three seasons. He does have the second highest assist percentage (Nash is first, obviously), but does generating assists make up for shooting a sub-40% on 2-point shots?
It’s rare to see a player with these advanced metrics and issues on film develop into a good or very good NBA player. With that said, there is a good player locked inside Emmanuel Mudiay. The question is whether Mudiay and New York have the master key to unlock that player. I know that sounds contradictory, but Mudiay has shown flashes, and I would not give up on someone this young and this talented just yet. The Knicks have him under contract for the remainder of this year and next year. It’s perfectly reasonable to be cautiously optimistic during that stretch.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done in order for Mudiay to improve. This process is not going to happen overnight, and potentially not even over a single off-season. The improvement may never happen. Outside of 3-point shooting, there aren’t many indicators to suggest otherwise. If expectations are set low and Mudiay is actually given the opportunity to develop, then there isn’t much more you can ask for. New York is banking on Mudiay being an outlier and betting on his pedigree to overcome the obstacles. It may have been a smart risk, but expecting anything more than yesterday’s performance consistently is a losing game.
New York Knicks