DENVER — Maybe on another day, Emmanuel Mudiay could return to Denver for Tuesday’s game against the Nuggets as a conquering hero. But his individual ascent is hard to see through the disparate directions his teams have taken.
The Nuggets, who discarded him last season after making him the No. 7 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, are riding high with the best record in the Western Conference (23-11). The Knicks, who have handed him a starting job as a reclamation project, are spiraling toward the worst record in the NBA.
Still, in a season that already has been a lost one for most of the Knicks, Mudiay has been able to steer his career out of obscurity. He is averaging a career-high 14.2 points and, most important, playing. After starting 66 games as a rookie, he didn’t start a single game for Denver last season, sitting out 12, before being traded to the Knicks after 54 games.
Still, after a humiliating 32-point loss at Utah and limping from a slightly sprained ankle, Mudiay wasn’t boasting.
“Honestly, I’m approaching it like any other game,” he said in the visitors’ locker room in Salt Lake City after the 129-97 loss to the Jazz. “I’m not making it bigger than what it is. At the end of the day, I’ve still got to play for my teammates. Especially after coming from a game like this, we want to come out and be ready.”
Mudiay insisted he will be despite the injury, which sent him out of the game in the third quarter (he said it was a mild ankle sprain). He went to the locker room, returned to the bench and then, with the game far out of hand — the Knicks trailed by as many as 46 points — went back to the locker room to continue receiving treatment.
He has performed well in his role but has hardly had an impact on the Knicks’ future. His minutes have come at the cost of playing time and development for Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ 2017 first-round pick. Mudiay is only 22 years old, but he will be a free agent at season’s end with a $12.8-million cap hold, which doesn’t fit with the team’s plans to chase a star in free agency.
David Fizdale started Ntilikina for the first 14 games of the season, nine of them at point guard after playing him as a wing in the first five games. The Knicks were 3-6 with Ntilikina at the point and Damyean Dotson in the starting lineup as defensive-minded players. But then Fizdale pulled the plug and put Mudiay and Kevin Knox in the lineup.
At the time, when it was pointed out to Fizdale that the lineup with Ntilikina and Dotson was third in net rating among lineups, he countered, “We weren’t winning, so it’s not like it was winning games for us.”
But the Knicks are 5-18 with Mudiay as a starter, with seven straight losses and 12 losses in the last 13 games — not exactly lighting up the league.
Mudiay said he has no hard feelings for Denver as he returns.
“It’s another game on the schedule. Just try to go out there and handle business,” he said. “I mean it’s no hard feelings toward them. I have respect for them. Like I keep saying, it was a mutual agreement on both parts. I have to do what’s best for me and they did what they felt was best for them.”