It happens with nearly every rookie class in every major sport–the players who grab the early headlines become entrenched ahead of their peers, rightly or wrongly. Whether it’s a star wide receiver like Odell Beckham Jr., a towering Latvian like Kristaps Porzingis or a surprise gunner like Damian Lillard, the players who seize early momentum get the benefit of the doubt.
Emmanuel Mudiay, the Denver Nuggets 2015 top-ten pick and point guard of the future, knows this all too well. The aforementioned Porzingis and star rookies like Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns have made it hard for him to stand apart from his peers in the first half of his rookie season in the Rocky Mountains. Missing a month of time due to a sprained ankle certainly hasn’t helped in that regard–if you can’t play, it’s hard to stand out.
But slow down before you overlook one of the most talented members of the 2015 Draft class. This kid is going to be a force on the court, and a dark horse to push shoe sales for Under Armour’s burgeoning basketball division.
You might have forgotten, but Mudiay was considered one of the brightest stars in the crop when he left high school in 2014, ranking third behind Towns and Okafor on nearly every draft connoisseur’s power rankings.
Mudiay took a different route to the pros than most of his peers. He plied his trade in China for a year rather than heading to college like most one-and-dones, eschewing a year in the NCAA to test himself against grown men. That’s a bold, risky chance for a teenager to make, betting his reputation and skills would sell themselves to NBA execs rather than relying on a college feeder program.
Maybe that should have been a sign of things to come. Rather than signing up with one of the “traditional” sneaker powers–Nike, Jordan Brand, adidas–Mudiay chose Under Armour, whose sneaker sales have gone through the roof thanks to Stephen Curry’s all-encompassing dominance.
Some guys would be intimidated or wary of being behind that kind of star power. But Mudiay isn’t your average 19-year-old baller, nor is he a guy that will be defined solely by his on-court success.
Peruse through his Instagram page (@emmanuelmudiay) and you’ll see what I mean almost immediately. You can find him DJ-ing with one of Denver’s well-known local DJs, DJ Bedz; showing off his style alongside fellow rookies and teammates; and documenting some rare moments of tranquility draped in dope gear.
His partnership with Under Armour has potential in different avenues for the Maryland-based retailer, in ways that their alignment with Curry does not. Part of that stems from their games; Mudiay is a relentless slasher, always driving into the teeth of the defense, while Curry is world-renowned for his ability to tilt the game without getting anywhere near the rim. That stylistic contrast is great for UA, and you wonder if there’s a future in marketing the duo as the embodiment of thunder and lightning.
However, it’s the aforementioned off-the-court stuff combined with his basketball skills that can help Mudiay stand apart from his peers, and even from his proverbial big brother Curry. Mudiay fits into a new breed of guards that can’t be pigeonholed easily, sliding alongside fearless attackers like Russell Westbrook. Both navigate the balancing act of getting their teammates involved while taking advantage of their natural ability to get to the rim.
Where Mudiay might similarly follow in a guy like Westbrook’s footsteps is with his off-court style. He hasn’t quite reached Russ’ stratosphere of off-the-wall fashion choices just yet–and really, who has?–but the Dallas-area product has already shown a desire to mix subtlety and flair. He already seems particularly inclined to mix in eye-popping shoes among otherwise simple outfits.
And if there’s any player in this class that’s going to overcome tough beginnings to rise above his peers, Mudiay is the guy you’d peg to do so.
Remember, this is a kid whose early childhood was spent in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. When interviewed by ESPN last summer, he made playing in the NBA sound nonchalant compared to his past: “I was born into pressure that is bigger than basketball. When I’m playing, I will flash back about something that happened when I was younger, and I use basketball to take it out on that.”
That attitude fits right in with the Under Armour aesthetic. Curry is the scrawny shooter that emerged from an unheralded college program to blinding superstardom. Mudiay, while far from the heights of Curry, is another guy who has faced immeasurable odds and won before. He’s gone from Congo to Dallas to China and now Denver, and all along he’s carried the same relentless, fearless demeanor.
So go ahead and overlook at your own peril. If there’s anybody prepared to make you regret sleeping on him, it’s Emmanuel Mudiay.