Every year the NBA draft has that one guy who no one can really put a finger on – the International Man of Mystery. Last season the question mark came from Down Under and Dante Exum. This year, the mystery man comes from China… Well, sort of.
By now, you know the legend of Emmanuel Mudiay – top ranked point guard in the nation coming out of Texas, the chosen one who was going to bring Larry Brown and the SMU Mustangs into national prominence. However, it was too good to be true. The Congo native bolted to unknown (literally, the wild wild Far East). And can you blame him? $1.2 million to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of China's CBA. Here we go again, right? Another Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler move – take the money, shun the college system. Sure, it has eventually worked out for Jennings and the jury is still out on Tyler.
But there is no denying that the world and development lifestyle of an NCAA star and international basketball experiment is as similar as night and day. To put it frankly, they are polar opposites. Coming from someone who has worked with professional teams in China, Korea, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, I’ve seen about everything under the sun. And I’ll tell you one thing, there is no BMOC (big man on campus) when you are 18 playing with grown men in a foreign country that hardly speaks English and serves chicken feet as a delicacy.
But enough of Mudiay’s story. What we all want to know is, who is this mystery man on the court and can he live up to the hype of being an elite NBA point guard?
Well, let’s find out. Our journey begins in Beijing. The matchup: Defending CBA champion Beijing Ducks and Chinese Icon (maybe you remember him) Stephon Marbury. Naturally, with NBA scouts packed into a smoke-filled fire hazard arena, all eyes would be on Mudiay vs. Marbury. Let’s just say it didn’t end well for Mudiay. Poor shot selection, complaining about no-calls around the rim, bad overall body language and basic domination by his counterpart – Starbury.
The media was on him, coaches throughout the league doubted him, everyone tabbed Mudiay for another international experiment gone wrong. But this is when the true colors of players really come out. Anyone can be great when all the cards are stacked in their favor, but when adversity strikes, that’s when you find out exactly who they truly are.
Sure, Mudiay’s shooting numbers from China aren’t going to blow you away – 57.4 percent free-throw shooting (chalk up one air-ball in there as well), 34.2 percent three-point shooter; which is probably better than he currently is. Couple that with the extended NBA thre-point range and Mudiay’s three-point consistency is a definite question mark.
However, he is a very streaky shooter and is able to ride the waves and find a rhythm when he gets going. He lacked the ability to finish consistently at a high level around the rim and didn’t show much of an in-between game with stop-and-pop mid-range jumpers or an efficient floater. Which raises the question, if he struggled finishing at the rim in China, what will it be like when he meets Marcin Gortat or Serge Ibaka at the rim in the NBA?
However, the thing that stands out about Mudiay, which is why he will be a sure-fire highly effective NBA point guard is the one coaches lose their already grey-struck hair over trying to coach and develop. The word: Intangibles.
I have many contacts throughout the CBA; friends who are coaches, former coaches, players, and former players, but one of the best up-and-coming scouts throughout all of China, with great inside knowledge on everything CBA, shed some light on the Emmanuel Mudiay saga.
Lukas Peng followed Mudiay around game to game while he was in China.
“Physically he’s very gifted but not at the level of freaky athletic like a John Wall or Derrick Rose as initially advertised," Peng told me.
"He’s more of a combination of smooth, strong, and explosive than purely quick. Very skilled player with an array of moves to get by defender. He uses hesitation and change of speeds very well. Very good rebounder for a guard and a very talented passer. He really looks to get his teammates involved. It’s very rare in China to see someone consciously look for highly-efficient analytical offensive situations – corner three-point shooters, rim attacks and dives, and even finding the open man in their best scoring position in transition like Mudiay does.”
An 18 year old understanding how to play with pace, change speeds, dictate the defender? That in itself is very impressive. I work with my NBA point guard clients for weeks on end in the offseason teaching and reinforcing how to shift gears in an effective change of pace game. I matched up with possibly the best change-of-pace talent in the game today, Russell Westbrook, when he was 19 at UCLA. As athletically gifted as he is, he didn’t understand at all at that age how to play with a change of speeds. As you know, he’s figured it out since then.
For Mudiay (now at the old age of 19) to already possess a high-level basketball IQ, natural PG feel for the game, and the want and desire to get his teammates involved first and foremost, that in itself is very rare. It’s the unteachable ability the great ones have to make everyone around them better. What I call the ‘LeBron James Factor.’ In no way am I comparing him to LBJ, but don’t sleep on Mudiay and his basketball savvy. You might not think his choice to bolt to China was smart, but on court, he’s as smart as you will find in a young, high potential-packed point guard.
Flash back to the season. Ten games in, Mudiay goes down with an ankle injury. Game over. At this point, you might as well start pouring salt on the wound. Struggling through the early games of the season, Chinese media all over him, label him a bust. And what would have derailed nearly every other 18 year old in his shoes, it didn’t phase Mudiay. He could have very easily thrown in the towel and given up on China, chalked it up as a loss, and started to prepare for the NBA draft. Not Mudiay, that’s not in his blood, that’s not his character.
He stuck it out in China, rehabbed his ankle, brought his mother over to live with him, and even developed close bonds with teammates to the point that he was calling Guangdong captain Zhu Fangyu his “Chinese Brother.” Developing relationships with teammates went a long ways and earned a lot of respect in the locker room. Instead of being the prima-donna big shot hype from America, Mudiay was now just one of the guys. Exactly the way Mudiay wants it, his natural point guard mentality of putting everyone else first showing through.
One would think as an 18 year old in China with deep pockets, extra down time, and all the foreign media attention on him, there would be a few stories here and there popping up of Mudiay run-ins with the law, extravagant parties, or even just late nights out in the city. Nope, none. I asked numerous knowledgeable trusted sources in China to find any interesting behind-the-scenes story that they could provide on Mudiay, but to no avail. Clean as a whistle. A far cry from another American import a couple years earlier – JR Smith.
Mudiay is a high-character guy, an intangible that is often overlooked and always undervalued. And at the point guard position in the NBA, it is beyond vital to have a leader on the floor with a steady mindset, a team-first attitude, and high-level commitment values. Why do you think people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars every year going to leadership conferences? You can’t develop the leadership gene, you are born with it. Emmanuel Mudiay, he has it.
Fast forward now to Game 3 of the CBA semifinals. Mudiay’s first game back since his ankle injury early in the season. The opponent, none other than Stephon Marbury and the Beijing Ducks. The heavyweight re-match is on. Since Mudiay’s absence, the starting point guard for Guangdong has been former NBA vet Will Bynum. Down 0-2 in the best of 5 series, Mudiay put the Tigers on his back and carried them to victory. He had 24 points, 6 rebounds off the bench, and looked as smooth and as cool as the other side of a pillow doing so.
Game 4 shifted back to Beijing where the Ducks were virtually unbeatable. I just so happen to be in Beijing at this time (at a TGI Friday’s eating the only American food I can find in Beijing to be exact) watching the game slip away from Guangdong and Mudiay. The magic comeback appeared to have run out. But once again, with a situation at its most challenging point, Mudiay steps to the plate to deliver. In the span of two minutes, Mudiay hits back-to-back threes, grabs a rebound and goes coast-to-coast, steals a pass feeding a teammate for an easy finish on a 'did you see that?' type of pass from near mid court.
There is no question who Guangdong is playing in crunch time: It’s the 18 year old Mudiay over the NBA proven vet Bynum. Mudiay’s improbable comeback is cut short by a desperation heave three ball from Marbury (the China king reigns supreme) that sends the game into overtime and eventually Beijing pulls away at home to clinch the series.
But even though Guangdong’s season and Mudiay’s Chinese basketball career ended that evening, his presence was felt throughout the CBA. The negative body language youngster who came over at the start of the season was now a well-respected top point guard in the league. And in a league where high-volume scorers such as Lester Hudson and Dominique Jones thrive, there is normally no place for a pass-first team leading point guard focused on making everyone around him better.
Sure, Mudiay has a lot of development still left in the tank before he is a polished, elite NBA point guard. Defensively, he has his lapses and he doesn’t shoot close to as well as he needs to be consistently shooting (I know exactly who can help you here, Emmanuel). Overall, the aspects that stick out about Mudiay are those that separate great point guards from the good and the average. Mudiay has the intangibles: high-level change of pace game, makes everyone around him better, relentless commitment and competitive drive, and maybe the most important of all – the ability to thrive and conquer any adverse situation.
A billion people breathing down your neck in a country with hardly any breathable air as it is, a language barrier that makes Spanish seem like 1+1, and an entirely different style of basketball all together…
Yeah, I think that might be a better test of will and development than a pampered BMOC lifestyle in Dallas.
If Mudiay isn’t the first point guard off the board in June’s NBA draft, three years from now some GM will be sitting on a couch out of a job thinking the same thing Larry Brown was thinking all year long: “That's the one that got away.”