LAS VEGAS—The product on the floor at the Las Vegas Summer League is, by the tyranny of literal definition, basketball. It’s just a form of basketball so far removed from the NBA’s version as to complicate player evaluation. The best and worst performances alike come with the caveat that summer league is a world all its own: The talent level is lower, the continuity is nonexistent, and the context of play is altogether distinct.
The true standouts in Vegas, then, are those who demonstrate the kinds of skills that can cut through the divide. Count Nuggets rookie Emmanuel Mudiay among them. A combined 14 assists (including 10 on Sunday against Sacramento) in his first two summer league games doesn't do him justice. Mudiay is such a smooth playmaker that he gives a makeshift offense of make-good prospects an actual rhythm.
Mudiay sees the game in a way that allows for that. There are prospects all across the summer league pool with rotation-quality speed or handle. Mudiay has both, stands a solid 6'5", and has the vision to see all of a possession’s opportunities. Whenever his drives bring multiple defenders to the ball, Mudiay monitors even those options that might first seem unavailable: The half-defended roll man, the zoned-up shooter on the weak side, or the cutter caught in a crowd. His every step and spin revises those possibilities.
“I learned so much in China,” Mudiay said. “Just slowing the game down, seeing where everybody’s at, knowing where everybody’s at. That really helped me.”
Just before the defense can settle, Mudiay creates. A cross-court pass will zip into the pocket of an available teammate from a difficult angle, bringing his drive-and-kick to a potent conclusion. Rare are those point guards who can not just find and exploit openings, but also keep defenses guessing. Mudiay has some of that spice—the ability to look past a good first option into a great (but challenging) second option. Corner shooters and hard rollers are going to love him.
“I can score when I need to but at the same time, [the Kings] were giving me wide open lanes,” Mudiay said. “Me finding my teammates, that was the main important thing. I found my teammates. How ever the other team’s playing me, that’s how I’m going to play.”
Mudiay’s passing on Sunday even caught the attention of Nuggets veteran Wilson Chandler:
The playmaking Mudiay has shown even at this early stage suggests considerable skill—the kind that isn’t easily quieted. Making that skill sing against defenses closing out with full, unforgiving speed in the NBA will take adjustment, though the way he sees through the thick of the coverage bodes well. Mudiay could be the kind of playmaker who gives the Nuggets offense, in whatever form it eventually takes under head coach Michael Malone, full reign of the court. A point guard prospect with awareness of every teammate would make Denver's every screen, spot-up, and cut that much more powerful.
Mudiay’s jumper, long tagged as a weakness in his game, will need to improve. He defends like a rookie, too; quickness and length give Mudiay the tools to guard well, though his timing and positioning leave something to be desired. Such is standard for a first-year NBA player, even those with professional experience and a mature passing game. Time, and practical, on-court experience are the natural remedy. That Mudiay sets up his teammates so well out of the gate gives him the means to those ends. After all, if the 19-year-old rookie can bring a collection of fringe NBA talent to efficiency, what might he do with shooters and rotation-quality finishers?