While the Knicks have labeled this season a player development experiment from the start of training camp, they have found in Emmanuel Mudiay an odd success story in the midst of the team’s struggles.
The plan was to let the year serve as a teaching moment for the trio of rookies on the roster, as well as last year’s draft picks. But Mudiay, who was acquired in a trade from the Nuggets last season, discarded by the team that had made him the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, has emerged as a starter and, of late, one of the team’s best players.
But his ascension is a conundrum for the Knicks. In the last nine games, Mudiay, 22, has averaged 20 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game. But the real question is what does it mean for the future of the team? The Knicks have still lost seven of those nine games, including defeats at the hands of two of the worst teams in the NBA, the Cavaliers and Suns.
Mudiay scored 32 points against against the Suns on Monday night, just two games after scoring a career-high 34 points in Charlotte. It raises the question of whether he has now done it long enough to prove that this is who he is now.
“Just playing with confidence,” Mudiay said. “That’s the main thing."
“I think it’s enough now that we know that this kid is an NBA rotation player,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Now how far it goes from there, it’s going to be what he does. But you get in a third of the season and a guy is consistently putting in 20, 30, 20, 30 [points], six rebounds, six assists, constantly doing that.
"I think the first thing he had to prove to himself and to everyone was is he a legitimate NBA basketball player and I think that’s proven right now. So now the next step is can we get him to really grow and develop and show the consistency of what a lead guard can do. But he’s really taken off and really gotten better every day.”
Beyond the numbers, though, is a bigger question: What does it mean for the Knicks? Mudiay is a free agent at season’s end with a contract that makes him unlikely to return. He has a cap hold of $12.8 million. The Knicks can chase star free agents before deciding whether to renounce that contract, but measuring Mudiay’s value against bringing aboard a star like the front office has planned is no contest.
So what do the Knicks do now? Mudiay has taken minutes from Frank Ntilikina, who remains under contract for the next two seasons. One NBA scout for another Eastern Conference team said that the play of late has not changed his opinion of Mudiay’s long-term prospects or made him an attractive trade chip. Fizdale said he’s not letting those factors determine his moves right now.
“No, not yet. We’re trying not to get to that,” Fizdale said. “I think it’s too soon to think in those terms. We’re still figuring out a lot of stuff and I still want to have a high level of accountability to performance. If a guy’s just not living up to it at that time I want to still give guys a fair shot to do their thing. I always do have to keep the future in mind in some of these decisions, but right now that’s not where we’re at.”