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Lottery prospect Emmanuel Mudiay went through a pair of pre-draft workouts with the Los Angeles Lakers, who held the No. 2 pick in June's 2015 NBA draft. After Karl-Anthony Towns went off the board to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the evening's first pick, the Lakers elected to go with another ball-handler — Ohio State southpaw D'Angelo Russell — instead of pulling the trigger on Mudiay, the Democratic Republic of Congo-born/Texas-raised elite prep prospect who passed on the NCAA's in favor of turning pro and playing in China for a season before declaring for the draft.
Asked Monday why the Lakers preferred Russell, L.A. head coach Byron Scott offered a frank and unsparing assessment of Mudiay.
"I didn’t think he was a true point guard," Scott said, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I didn’t think he was a guy who made great decisions when we saw him and had him here. I thought that was something he would have to learn to do to run that position.”
Scott did go on to describe the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Mudiay as "pretty athletic," with a "little edge," and say he thought Mudiay “was going to be pretty good” at the NBA level. That faint praise didn't seem to mollify Mudiay, who landed with the Denver Nuggets at the No. 7 pick and promised to use the Lakers' decision to pass on him as motivation when he lined up against them. That opportunity came Tuesday night, and after a slow start, Mudiay kept his word:
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Mudiay missed his first nine shots on Tuesday before hitting a 3-pointer on the left wing to open his account — and, thanks to a foul by Russell on the contest, getting a fourth point in the bargain — and kicking his game into gear in the second half. He'd finish with 12 points, 10 assists, two rebounds, one steals and one block in 31 1/2 minutes of playing time, helping the Nuggets to a 120-109 win that improved them to an even 2-2 on the season while dropping the woeful Lakers to 0-4 in what seems like it's going to be an awfully long season.
It wasn't the most sterling performance you'll ever see — six turnovers and a 3-for-13 mark from the field suggest the young fella's got a ways to go yet — but after logging his first career double-double against a team that passed him you and a coach who'd just given him some side-eye in the press, Mudiay felt good enough to do a bit of postgame stunting:
We're not sure Nuggets head coach Michael Malone necessarily loves such postgame pipe-ups, but he's clearly a fan of Mudiay, and — with an eyebrow raised in Scott's direction — he said as much before Tuesday's contest, according to Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:
With a nod toward the Lakers locker room, Malone said, "Unlike some others, we feel he is a point guard that can make good decisions and we feel he’s going to showcase that throughout the season."
Mudiay's clearly still struggling with the mechanics on his shot — he's just 17-for-55 through four games, though that includes an encouraging 8-for-17 mark from 3-point land — but he can string some together when he gets into a rhythm, as he did after the four-point play against Russell.
"That was huge. I needed that for sure," Mudiay said after the game, according to Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post. "I was struggling shooting the ball."
Russell had a tough time finding his touch, too, going 3-for-11 from the field for seven points to go with six assists. He also, however, had a tough time finding his way onto the floor, sitting out the entire final 12 minutes as Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young and Marcelo Huertas manned the backcourt. From Medina of the Daily News:
All of which left Russell unsure on how he goes about trying to crack the crunch-time rotation.
“I have no idea,” Russell said. “It’s something I’ve got to deal with.” [...]
That’s something Russell has had to deal with in more than just one game. Russell sat in the entire fourth quarter in the Lakers’ season-opening loss last week to Minnesota. In that game, Russell also appeared more uncomfortable because he surprisingly played at shooting guard after never spending any of training camp at that position. Russell then played in the final 4:04 of the Lakers’ loss to Sacramento, but that appeared to be garbage time in a double-digit blowout.
Russell offered the diplomatic answer after his first fourth-quarter snub.
“Coach does a great job doing what he does,” Russell said. “His job is to coach. So if I’m on the floor, I’m on the floor. If I’m not, live with it.”
There is, unfortunately, quite a lot that folks are having to grit their teeth and live through in Lakerland these days. Maybe Mudiay should pack in an extra thanks that he's landed where he has before getting set to take on the Utah Jazz on Thursday night.
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