DENVER — Kids, learn to dribble, pass and shoot.
Coaches, teach kids to dribble, pass and shoot.
Don’t pin the failure that was the Emmanuel Mudiay era — yes, “era” is a deep stretch — on Mudiay. Or even the Nuggets. It’s over now, gone with the February trade winds, after the Nuggets sent Mudiay to the Knicks on Thursday. In a three-way swap, the Nuggets got Mavericks veteran Devin Harris, and adding a been-there, done-that point guard is a sharp, necessary move for a team that must navigate a slippery tightrope littered with playoff contenders in the Western Conference.
But Thursday wasn’t about Harris, who represents a 28-game rental (plus the postseason, the hope goes) before his contract expires after this season. No, Thursday was about Mudiay — born in the Congo, raised in Texas, playing in China at 18, drafted by Denver at 19 and traded to New York at 21.
If you had told me three years ago this scene would play out inside Pepsi Center, I would've bought you another: Upon hearing the news Thursday, Mudiay emerged from a training room to say his goodbyes to the only NBA team he’s known. He hadn’t even checked his phone yet. Mudiay hugged Dr. Steve Short, the director of sports medicine, and made his way down the line of trainers, assistants and player development staff. And then Mudiay was gone — as a Nuggets marketing ploy once shouted — to start a new day.
"Such a great kid," president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said.
The Nuggets are openly rooting for a player they just traded away — as long as Mudiay ascends in the Eastern Conference, of course. That says plenty.
The easy out is to say the Nuggets whiffed on the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 draft. I guess that's true, so far, but if the Nuggets whiffed on Mudiay, so did I, and so did every hoophead who saw Mudiay tumble from a projected top-five pick and into the Nuggets’ lap. He was the only choice. Finally! The Nuggets had caught a draft break.
This was supposed to be the guy here — not Jamal Murray, not Gary Harris, not Nikola Jokic. For the first time since Carmelo Anthony fell into their lap in 2003 — and for one of the rare times in a gruesome draft history preceded by luminaries Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Raef LaFrentz — the draft broke in Denver's favor. Here was this supersized point guard, with a smile that lit up the block and a Christian faith that carried him through the good times and bad, who would elevate the Nuggets back to the postseason.
Not even close.
The problem is — part of the problem, at least — Mudiay arrived in the NBA having never been coached. I mean, actually coached. Too often as a can’t-miss teenager he was viewed as the meal ticket, a powerful floor manager whose 6-foot-5 frame aced the layup-line test and who could fall his way into gaudy statistics on the AAU circuit simply because he was bigger and stronger than his peers. When his peers suddenly became NBA peers, Mudiay no longer could physically overwhelm the competition. The foundation of basic basketball skills — dribbling, passing, shooting — were never put in place. His early individual workouts with the Nuggets reminded me of redshirt workouts you’d see at a college program that’s smart enough to redshirt players. They reminded me of how the Nuggets worked with Quincy Miller, another teenager drafted into the NBA who failed to pan out. The Nuggets didn’t fail Mudiay, even if team sources said they wished they could have done more. And Mudiay didn’t fail Mudiay. He was a teenager charged with playing alongside grown men. Tough draw, even when the money's pretty sweet.
The people around Mudiay failed Mudiay. An 18-year-old needs a season in China like you need a flat tire. His initial plan was to attend SMU for a year and play for Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, and that experience, even for one season, would have established a favorable foundation for his pro career.
Didn't happen. Not even close.
“I thought we had a chance to win a national championship had he come here,” Larry Brown told me after the 2015 draft. “Had he done that, he would have been the first pick in the draft.”
As we've seen over two-plus seasons with the Nuggets, the lack of fundamental development has threatened a man’s career before he’s old enough to rent a car. But you know another point guard who was traded away at 21 years young? He goes by Chauncey Billups, or the King of Park Hill, or Mr. Big Shot. It's natural for Nuggets fans to consider that the scary part — what Mudiay could become. But this move suggests the Nuggets have 100-percent belief in their core of Murray (20), Gary Harris (23) and Jokic (22). Trading a 21-year-old point guard for Devin Harris, 34, says the time to win is now.
“We’ve never felt — as a front office staff or a coaching staff — we’ve got to move this guy, or this guy is hurting us, or this guy has a bad attitude. We don’t have that. And I say that with all sincerity," coach Michael Malone said Thursday. "We have a great culture. We have a great locker room. We have outstanding guys."
They're right, too. The kids can play. But it still tickles to wonder what could have been, what should have been, with Emmanuel Mudiay in Colorado.