The Curious Case of Emmanuel Mudiay

Jonathan Macri discusses whether we should be excited about Emmanuel Mudiay's recent play.

2

Someone on Twitter messaged me recently about whether I knew of any fun Knicks drinking games1.

Before the season started, if you’d have asked me this, the first name to pop into my head would have been Emmanuel Mudiay. What better way to get all warm and toasty inside than to drink at the sight of any one of his plethora of follies, I thought.

Take a shot every time Emmanuel Mudiay drives the lane and ends up on the floor, perhaps? Or maybe take a sip of alcohol whenever you see Mudiay fail to get around a pick? You could also throw one back each time Mudiay stands behind the 3-point line without a defender in the same area code, or every time he makes a basketball decision that would get him benched in a CYO game. Do all of them and you’d be passed out under the dining room table before the halftime buzzer sounded.

Well, you would be if he ever saw the court, that is. Due to a bum ankle, that didn’t happen for the first six games of the 2018-19 season. After a two-minute stint in game seven of the season and a DNP-CD in game eight, Manny has averaged 22 minutes over the last nine games, including three consecutive starts.

If you had given the Mudiay drinking game a whirl over that time, to the shock of almost everyone, you might have actually made it to the end of most games still being able to walk in a straight line. It still feels odd to write the words, but Emmanuel Mudiay has not been the complete and total disaster he was during his brief Knicks stint last season – the one that caused head coach David Fizdale to single him out at his introductory presser, saying “You really suck, dude” “We gonna get you right.”


Good Mudiay

To some extent, the coach’s prophesy has come true. The former Denver Nugget and Guangdong Southern Tiger has cleaned up several of the areas that drove fans crazy. For starters, his .546 true shooting percentage is worlds better than his .462 career mark2. He’s also no longer a comedy of errors around the basket. Mudiay is hitting 56 percent of his shots around the rim, which is in the top half of point guards in the NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. Even better, among 107 players averaging over five drives3 per game, his 61.9 percent conversion rate on field goals out of such plays ranks third, in the midst of several All-Stars. We’ve seen the improvement on display regularly this year, like here against the Pelicans …

… and last week against Oklahoma City:

This last play speaks to one of the two reasons Fiz has verbalized for wanting to get Mudiay into the lineup: playing faster. With Mudiay on the court, the Knicks play at a pace of 104.4, which would rank fifth in the NBA4. When he’s on the bench, that number drops to 101.23, which would come in at 17th – or what the Knicks actually rank. Another great example of him pushing it came during the Knicks’ hitting-on-all-cylinders first half in New Orleans:

That play also shows the other, ostensibly primary reason Fizdale now has Manny starting games: his passing. This is also where things start to get tricky. On one hand, the eye test confirms that Mudiay can make every pass in the book. Here’s him hitting Kevin Knox right in the shooter’s sweet spot, which is the difference between Knox being able to get this shot off and not:

Here’s Mudiay finding Knox once again, this time on a cut to the rim that required a fairly high level of precision:

Both of these plays show why it’s unfair to say that the only way to properly develop New York’s young talent is to play all of their young, core pieces at the same time. Each of these passes rewarded the Knicks youngest young’n, Kevin Knox, for making the correct basketball play. That’s a good thing, and Mudiay – someone who likely won’t be here after this season – was responsible. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.

He also clearly has a talent for finding guys in spots that others may not see, and for getting to spots on the floor that make facilitating the offense a bit easier:

The bottom clip here is a good example of how solid passing won’t always lead to assists. Obviously, Dotson missed the shot. Even if he’d made it though, the couple of dribbles he took beforehand likely would have precluded this from going down as an assist on the official scoresheet5.

There’s even some data from last year suggesting Mudiay passes into more efficient opportunities for his teammates than Ntilikina does:

So yes, Mudiay can dish it. But so can Frank. We’ve seen Ntilikina make just about every pass in the book at various points in his young career. Moreover, when he’s in the game, the Knicks assist percentage is 48.8, whereas Mudiay’s on-court number is 44.8. That’s not great, and whether the ball moves directly from Frank’s hands or not, the offense does seem to flow more when Ntilikina in the game at the point of attack.

There’s more. Manny is dishing a pedestrian 3.7 assists per 36 minutes. Explain that number away as much as you want, but if part of the reason Mudiay is in the game is to juice an offense from the point guard position, that number ain’t cutting it. Mudiay’s turnover ratio is also brutal, coming in at 13.4. That ranks 179th out of 218 players seeing over 20 minutes per game. And these turnovers are usually of the more spectacular variety:


Bad Mudiay

And now we get into the “Bad Mudiay” section of our programming. Through 10 games – not an insignificant sample size, but by no means definitive – Manny’s on court defensive rating is 116.6, which is nearly four points per 100 possessions worse than the league worst Cavs. We saw this matador D on display in Orlando, along with the spaciness that has continued to plague him even during this recent stretch of competence:

If this comes down to a question of whether Emmanuel Mudiay should start games or not, one number jumps out more than any of the above stats or clips: 125.8.

That’s the Knicks’ defensive rating when Manny and Tim Hardaway Jr. share the court, which is slightly worse than if New York’s players were getting paid to throw the game. It’s come in only 96 minutes, which, again, isn’t everything, but also isn’t nothing. If we go on the assumption that Timmy will continue to start games – spoiler alert: he will – it would seem that this starting backcourt is an untenable combination6.


What does this all mean?

Ultimately, for as wonderful as Mudiay’s offensive resurgence has been, baring continued leaps and bounds, even this version of Mudiay figures to top out as a high-end backup. If the team didn’t have such an incentive to develop Frank to his fullest potential, maybe there’s a discussion between the value of Manny’s passing, driving and pace-pushing vs the drawbacks of his defense and Manny-isms.

That’s not the case though. Emmanuel has not shown anything resembling an elite skill in any particular area, whereas Frank already flashes All-Defense potential on a nightly basis. If there’s only one plant in this garden that gets the water, it should be Frank’s.

Does this mean Mudiay shouldn’t play? No, because as I’ve written about before, there’s immense value to being an organization where misfit toys feel they can come to become whole again. There’s even a (slim) chance Manny could net a small asset at the trade deadline, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

As for Frank, his ceiling and development continue to be the hot-button issues for the fan base. The further the season moves along, things seems to be getting less clear, not more, and Mudiay’s insurgence/resurgence only makes matters more complicated.

Is more time off ball a help or a hindrance to Frank’s overall growth as a player? Has taking him out of the starting lineup relieved pressure, or has it damaged his confidence? Should there be more plays drawn up to enable his success on the court, or is it best that a player with a tendency to overthink uses this season to figure out things on his own through trial and error?

These questions should become easier to answer as the season moves along. Mudiay, meanwhile, will be given more chances to show continued improvement. Perhaps that’s wise. The leash, though, should be short. While this entire year is for Training Purposes Only, with a quarter of the season nearly gone, the Knicks don’t have any time to waste.