DENVER — Millionaire by millionaire, the Nuggets filed out one final time.
There was Jamal Murray, the man who would be Steph, promising three-pointers to come. There was Nikola Jokic, saying all the right things: Yes, you can win an NBA championship in Colorado. "Why not?" Jokic said. There was Danilo Gallinari, all but shouting his goodbyes to the state he calls a second home.
"I've never been a free agent before," Gallinari said, as if he needed to justify his inevitable exit. And he should be one. Cash those checks, Gallo.
But the key to this whole thing — a young man who's been forgotten and now must make us remember — sauntered out with cut-off gym shorts and a dose of humility.
"I was kind of spoiled by basketball," Emmanuel Mudiay whispered.
In a Western Conference loaded for bear, where must the Nuggets turn this offseason?
Mudiay must turn into a player. As another postseason unfolds with the local ballclub at home, there is light at tunnel's end. The critical piece to their puzzle is Mudiay, a fact underscored by the teams still alive and led by dynamic lead guards: Golden State with Steph Curry, Houston with James Harden, the Clippers with Chris Paul, Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook, Portland with Damian Lillard. For the Nuggets to take the next step, Mudiay needn't be on their All-Star level; he just needs to be a threat. By now it's clear the Nuggets hit the draft jackpot with Jokic as a prodigal playmaker and Murray as a sweet-shooting scorer. If they hit on Mudiay, too, brighter days are here to stay.
So far, no good. But still so early.
The humility and resolve that Mudiay showed at the end of his second season should bring optimism to a Nuggets fandom that's seen more drama than development over the four seasons that have ended this way, out of mind and the playoffs. Instead of pouting over a demotion to the bench in favor of veteran Jameer Nelson, who deserved the lead role, Mudiay finished strong. Over the final five games his turnovers dipped and shot improved. He finally looked comfortable.
"I remembered how much I love basketball," Mudiay said.
Mudiay turned 21 on March 5. It's worth noting — and Mudiay did — that's the same age of Chauncey Billups when the Celtics traded away Park Hill's finest during his rookie season.
Boston botched it. Denver shouldn't give up on Mudiay.
His two seasons in the NBA account for the first time Mudiay has been coached. As in, truly coached. His plan coming out of high school, initially, was to play at Southern Methodist for Larry Brown, who once told me SMU would have reached the Final Four with Mudiay leading the way. But the best-laid plans, as they say, went to China.
"If I did go to college, I think I probably would have learned more and faster than if I waited to get to the NBA. I would have been learning from Larry Brown," said Mudiay, who played one season in China before he was drafted seventh overall in 2015. "But (on the other hand) I would have seen my Mom struggle again."
I usually side with the these-guys-have-it-made crowd. With Mudiay, it's different. The pressure that smothered Mudiay would have broken many teenagers. Was he broken?
"Never," he said.
"The only person that knows my ending is God," Mudiay added.
Like you, I have reservations about Mudiay as the point guard of the Nuggets' future. It could be Murray, whose inner circle firmly believes he's that point guard, who ultimately plays there. And there are tics in Mudiay's game, such as his tendency to leap with nowhere to go with the ball, that drive me nuts. It could be that Mudiay once thrived on his athleticism, the NBA has comparable athletes for days, and now his basketball career has plateaued.
But strong character dies hard. And while it's fair to ask if Mudiay has people around him who share his best interests, his character is as strong as a Westbrook drive to the basket. I asked him: What did you mean "spoiled by basketball?"
"I've always been in a situation to be successful really, really fast," he said. "From high school, being a top player, to going overseas, I was one of the main guys and stuff like that. Last year I got to start right away. (Losing his starting spot in a drastic midseason change) made me appreciate basketball a lot more. So every time I got out there — whether I got three minutes or five minutes — it was like, 'Dang, I appreciate it.'"
The best thing that could happen for Mudiay — and for the Nuggets, since he's the key here — is Mudiay working out with Gary Harris this offseason. They are close friends, and Harris' workouts helped him become a cornerstone of what the Nuggets are attempting to build.
Then it's go time. In Year 3, Mudiay must earn back the starting spot he should hold down for a decade. Age is no longer an alibi.