How Emmanuel Mudiay Remembers His Knicks' Tenure
By Shlomo Sprung, Special to Knicks SI
Emmanuel Mudiay has been through such a basketball odyssey that it’s hard to imagine he’s only 23 years old.
Born in the Congo, Mudiay’s family fled the war-torn region just as he became a teenager. He moved to the Dallas area and became a sensational high school prospect, eventually becoming one of the nation’s top recruits. He agreed to play for former Knicks head coach Larry Brown at SMU, but in the summer of 2014, Mudiay changed course and spent a year playing in China, one of the first heralded prospects to forgo college for a year overseas.
Mudiay was picked 7th overall by Denver in the 2015 Draft, and things just didn’t work out for young Emmanuel with the Nuggets. Over the course of two-and-a-half disappointing seasons, Mudiay said he lost his love for the game. But a deadline-day deal in 2018 to the Knicks helped change all that. His season-plus tenure with New York helped him rediscover his passion for basketball.
Now with the Utah Jazz, the 6-foot-3 point guard was in Brooklyn to face the Nets, enjoying a steady bench role and shooting a career-best 48.8% from the field and 34.9% from three. With a calm and steady demeanor, Mudiay spoke fondly about his time with the Knicks during a period where the team endured historic lows.
“Obviously we wanted to win more, but I built some good relationships,” Mudiay said. “For me personally, it’s probably different from other people. I got a chance to play, have fun and start having a love for the game again.”
Acquired in a three-team trade that saw Doug McDermott go to Dallas, Mudiay started 14 of his 22 games for the Knicks in 2017-2018, averaging nearly nine points and four assists per contest. More importantly, he got away from what seemed like a toxic situation in Denver.
“A little bit of the politics of the NBA. People know,” he said, declining to further elaborate on what went on.
By 2018, the Nuggets had Jamal Murray established as the starting point guard of the present and future, and drafted another point guard in Monte Morris to be his eventual backup. Getting to New York, Mudiay said, felt good for him. Playing at Madison Square Garden and seeing the fans there proved instrumental in reviving his career, as did a lot of folks on the Knicks.
“The whole organization, really,” Mudiay said. “Scott [Perry], Steve [Mills], Fiz, some of the players, people that are behind the scenes that nobody talks about.”
Mudiay said he lived 15 minutes from the Tarrytown practice facility and developed a strong rapport with team staff members including massage therapist Erin Silberberg, director of training and conditioning Erwin Benedict Valencia and manager of player relations Rebecca Alvy. But the person Mudiay was most partial to was David Fizdale, who he said helped him get back to being a confident player.
“He was great for me,” Mudiay said. “He brought the fun back.”
While the Knicks ended up 17-65 in 2018-2019, tying their worst record in franchise history, Fizdale’s interest in Mudiay began paying serious dividends when he was inserted into the starting lineup on Nov. 14.
For the next 32 games, Mudiay played 28.1 minutes per game and averaged 16.3 points and 4.3 assists on 45.4% shooting with just 2.3 turnovers per contest. That included a stretch in December when he scored more than 30 points in three of five games.
“I was just playing at a high level,” he said. “Obviously we wanted to win a lot more, but my confidence was up, the coaches let me make plays, finish games out.”
Then Mudiay suffered a strained left shoulder in late January, costing him a month just when he was starting to build some serious momentum.
“There’s nothing I really could’ve done about it,” he said. “I wasn’t too frustrated. Everything happens for a reason. I was in a good place in my mind.”
The month Mudiay missed happened to have been one of the more turbulent, tumultuous periods the Knicks have seen in quite some time. New York traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks that dramatically changed the Knicks’ backcourt. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee were gone and another point guard of the future, Dennis Smith Jr., was prioritized ahead of Mudiay at the time.
When Mudiay came back on Feb. 22, so much had changed.
“That’s out of my control,” he said, “but if I was out there, I just tried to play my game and tried to win as many games as we could.”
After coming off the bench upon his return, Mudiay started the final 10 games he played with the Knicks, averaging 17.6 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, a positive outcome amidst so much on-court negativity. But New York decided to go in a different direction in the offseason, and Mudiay inked a one-year deal worth $1.73 million with Utah to try to develop and build his value going forward.
Mudiay said that while other people may see the Knicks differently, he has nothing bad to say about the organization, especially Fizdale, who the team fired this season after a 4-18 start.
“He’s still a great guy to me. I check in on him every once in a while,” Mudiay said. “We have a good relationship. Obviously it’s unfortunate what happened, but he’ll be back in the league at some point.”
To Mudiay, a young man with so many different experiences packed into his 23 years, he’ll always look at the Knicks as a team that rekindled his love for basketball.
“It was definitely fun playing there, especially the fans, the Garden,” he said. “Hopefully it turns around for them.”