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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Emmanuel Mudiay

A former lottery pick quickly running out of time

NBA: New York Knicks at Portland Trail Blazers
He often falls on the ground
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Competition for roster spots and playing time is always high all around the NBA. With 30 teams and just 450 active roster spots available at any given time, if you’re not performing up to par, there’s plenty of dudes out there ready to snatch what’s yours. That’s the nature of the beast.

David Fizdale indicated players would have to earn playing time with a “keep what you kill” edict at the outset of training camp. Nowhere is the competition for minutes stiffer than in the backcourt, and for Emmanuel Mudiay, that may not be a good thing.

The former 7th overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft was acquired from Denver at the trade deadline in return for Doug McDermott and a second round pick near last year’s trade deadline. He had failed to develop with the Nuggets over three years and his status as the “point guard of the future” had been usurped by Jamal Murray, a converted shooting guard drafted a year after Mudiay.

Mudiay’s substandard all-around performances created an opening which Murray grabbed with both hands. He hasn’t looked back since leaving Mudiay to fight for scraps off the Nuggets bench before the Knicks rolled the dice on him.

Given a second lease on life in New York, Mudiay didn’t exactly hit the ground running. Instead, he fell. A lot.

The image of Mudiay sprawled out somewhere on the baseline as the other team pushes off a miss with numbers the other way is seared into my mind forever. His contributions to the all-around ineptitude of the Kristaps Porzingis-less 2017-18 Knicks were invaluable to the tank.

Of course, his struggles weren’t just limited to failed forays to the rim. Poor outside shooting straight out of the Ronnie Brewer highlight reel (OAKAAK!) was also standard fare as he hit on just 19.6% of his attempts from beyond the arc. Careless turnovers, a career-long bugaboo, continued to plague him. The defense varied from lazy and bad to non-existent.

The combination of poor play and effort was disconcerting for a player who so desperately needed to show more heading into the final year of his rookie deal.

Still, Fizdale believed that three years of NBA failure was fixable. He made that very clear at his introductory press conference.

Fizdale went out of his way to tell Mudiay, “We’re going to get to work kid, we’re going to get to work. We’re going to get you right and you’re going to be tough to defend and you’re going to be a heck of a defender. We’re going to pick that up.”

To Mudiay’s credit, he certainly put in the work this summer. He reported to training camp noticeably slimmer — fitness had previously been a knock on him — after reportedly losing 15 pounds. Fizdale even went so far as to praise Mudiay early in camp for improving his shot and being the lowest turnover guy on the team.

With all the praise he was receiving, it was natural many were at least hopeful for his preseason debut. That hope was quickly squashed right after his first drive of the game.

But maybe that’s just a small sample size thing, right?

And the coup de grâce......

Things didn’t get much better in the Knicks’ second preseason outing against Sean Marks’ rising powerhouse Brooklyn Nets. Mudiay scored two points on 1-5 shooting from the field to go along with 3 assists and 2 turnovers in 15 minutes, but those numbers belie how poorly he played. The -10 he posted in just 15 minutes of play painted a more accurate picture.

As things stand, it doesn’t look like the 22-year-old Congo native’s game has evolved as hoped. Coordinated drives to the rim remain a bridge too far, perimeter shooting a dream, and defense a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. With Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson and Ron Baker all competing with Mudiay for backcourt minutes, things may get worse and never get better.

It still feels harsh to dismiss the prospects of a once-ballyhooed lottery prospect at the outset of his fourth year in the league. However, it’s difficult to see Mudiay progressing when he hasn’t shown growth in any area of his game (aside from free throw shooting).

He can penetrate into the lane to collapse a defense consistently. That is a genuine skill, but if you’re neither able to finish efficiently once you’re in the lane nor capable of creating at a high enough rate for others to offset your turnovers, it’s one which fails to bear fruit.

So, the question remains: What NBA skills does Mudiay possess?

If those are the answers, then Mudiay will be lucky to finish the season with the Knicks. Perry, Mills, and Fizdale do seem to still buy into his mythical “potential”, but with summer 2019 and a bevy of star free agents looming, that will only buy him so long. If he can’t turn things around this season, he may well have used up all the good will top-10 pick status buys you, with Europe or China looming on the horizon.