Vets Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari may be back in 2015-16 rather than packing after the trade news, Jusuf Nurkic may be back after a rookie season with promising stretches, and Ty Lawson may eventually make it back from whatever bad place he is in, but Mudiay is the guy who will be given the ball on opening night with instructions to make something happen.
That would have been the case anyway, because it was an open secret around the league that Lawson was careening in the wrong direction personally. But hissecond DUI arrest since January, this time early Tuesday in Los Angeles, exposes a problem that has now officially gone beyond basketball issues. It also means that a rookie whose only experience since high school is an injury-plagued 2014-15 in China is the dependable Denver point guard.
No first-year player is in position to make the same impact, a primary reason Mudiay opened summer league No. 2 on the Rookie Ladder. The other is that, although far from complete, he is big enough at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds to handle physical play, athletic enough to create as many problems for opponents as they throw at him, and so interested in getting better that he peppers coach Michael Malone with questions about LeBron James, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, all of whom Malone worked with as an assistant in Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State. Whether James put in his extra work before practice or after, what kind of leader CP3 was apart from game nights, the drills that Curry did to develop his shot -- Malone would be annoyed with the waves of curiosity if he wasn't loving it so much.
Mudiay is looking for any edge and ways to accelerate the rookie learning curve, an approach to his new role that appears as a focus the Nuggets are suddenly lacking at the position. The lazy narrative of Mudiay as a mystery man of the draft was never true -- he was a Texas guy and one of the top two or three prospects at the start of the season, not some foreign prospect making a late dash up the board -- and now he is revealing a maturity the Nuggets desperately need.
Malone talked a few days ago about playing Mudiay and Lawson together, which may have been more trying to say the right things than actual plan since it had become difficult to count on Lawson even before the latest arrest. The Nuggets' direction was still clear, though, with Malone saying, "... Emmanuel's going to be a guy we feature early on. He's too good not to do that. I think he can make everybody around him better. I think the veterans that are coming back will love playing with him and I think he and Ty Lawson on the court at the same time, you have two dynamic guards that can put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses."
The approach remains in place even if the specific backcourt pairing does not. The new coach will be handing the ball to the new point guard, understanding it will require patience to get through the nights of bad shooting that appear inevitable but that the big payoff in future years will make it a very worthwhile investment. It's not just that it could be Emmanuel Mudiay's team. It's that it already is.
1. STANLEY JOHNSON, Pistons (Previous ranking: 1)
The way things are going in Las Vegas, Johnson is close to clinching No. 1. The underwhelming finale of 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting can't diminish the positives of a very good Orlando showing. Johnson scored at least 13 points the first four games and was at 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 64.3 percent, including four of nine (44.4 percent) on 3s, before the final day. He also had three steals in two of the outings and two in another.
2. MYLES TURNER, Pacers (2)
Turner's life has changed dramatically since the draft with Roy Hibbert being traded and David West leaving as a free agent, combining to create a greater immediate chance for the No. 11 pick. Averaging 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 60.5 percent in three appearances in Orlando was a nice move to show he deserved the opportunity.
3. FRANK KAMINSKY, Hornets (3)
Charlotte wanted a three-point threat to address what has been an obvious need for years? The college Player of the Year was 7-for-18 behind the arc in Orlando. Showing a well-rounded game, Kaminsky also contributed six, seven, six, eight and 12 rebounds, topped by the 19 points and 12 boards in the July 4 opener against Oklahoma City.
4. BRANDEN DAWSON, Clippers (4)
No. 56 pick, huh? The former Michigan State standout, officially selected by the Pelicans but immediately dealt to Los Angeles, used the first four games in Central Florida as a response to most front offices. Dawson had three double-doubles and in all averaged 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 25.5 minutes while shooting 52.2 percent (although 33.3 from the line).
5. JOE YOUNG, Pacers (5)
The No. 43 pick was the early scoring star of summer, getting just nine points in his Indiana debut in Orlando before moving to the forefront with 25, 28 and 28 the next three games. Young was a combined 29-for-55 from the field (52.7 percent) the last three, including 9-for-17 (52.9) behind the arc. It's the offensive punch a lot of teams envisioned while concerned about the transition to point guard, concerns that didn't go away with 13 assists against 11 turnovers in all.
6. DAKARI JOHNSON, Thunder (6)
Call it an encouraging start to what could be a long process. Johnson does not figure to have a prominent role in Oklahoma City in the regular season -- although maybe on the OKC D-League team -- but 11, 10, six and 11 rebounds in Orlando while playing more than 27 minutes just once is a much-needed parachute after the former big-time prospect dropped all the way to No. 48 in the draft.
7. JAHLIL OKAFOR, 76ers (7)
He flashed some very good post moves Tuesday against the Knicks, but still finished 8-for-18 from the field. Any shot beyond six or eight feet remains an adventure, though. And he got blocked five times, three courtesy Kristaps Porzingis. Okafor's 19 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks Saturday against the Lakers was one of the best game for any rookie outside Orlando, and he is doing good work on the boards. The rebounding, with at least nine boards in three of five appearances, has become the key to staying in the rankings.
8. EMMANUEL MUDIAY, Nuggets (8)
The No. 7 pick was bad from the field again Monday, making just four of 13 attempts against the Heat. The Nuggets can't dismiss it as a summer league/rust/rookie jitters thing, either -- whether he could make shots was the biggest Mudiay question mark heading into the draft. Now he's at 37.2 percent overall and 14.3 percent on 3s.
9. JORDAN MICKEY, Celtics (10)
Another 11 rebounds and two blocks Monday against the Heat. Mickey has gone from some good moments in Salt Lake City to becoming one of the best players in Las Vegas, rookie or otherwise. His last four games have been the 11 boards in 25 minutes, nine points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes, 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes and 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in 31 minutes.
10. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, Timberwolves (9)
At least he's rebounding. The nine boards Saturday against the Bulls and the 10 on Monday against the Jazz have become an unexpectedly necessary offset to making just 12 of 36 attempts in three games in Las Vegas, including four of 15 versus Utah. Towns is taking tougher shots than most centers, trying to develop the perimeter game that makes him such an intriguing prospect, but that part of his game has been a struggle.
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