DENVER -- Over Emmanuel Mudiay's first eight games of his sophomore season, the 20-year-old point guard was largely the same player he was during his rookie campaign.
16.1 points per game, a healthy average for a second-year point guard, but Mudiay did so on just 35.3 percent shooting from the field and 32.1 percent from three, poor numbers for someone attempting 14.5 field goals and 3.5 3-pointers per game. Even more worrisome were his turnovers. Through those eight games, Mudiay was averaging 4.9 turnovers to just 3.8 assists, 1.7 more turnovers more per game than he averaged during his rookie year.
The Nuggets were also playing at one of the fastest paces in the league, something they're still doing today but Mudiay was struggling at the time to handle the extra possessions presented to him, further enabling his turnover issues.
He was looking to make the home-run play, the highlight reel assist, and was paying the price in turnovers. Mudiay constantly left his feet on passes, tried to force things into tight spaces and looked to push the ball and initiate offense by himself in transition even when the Nuggets had no resemblance of numbers.
In the pick-and-roll, one of Mudiay's strengths last season, the point guard became prone to putting his head down and barrelling towards the basket, hoping for a foul or lucky bounce off the rim.
"When you play fast, obviously you have more possessions, more opportunities to turn the ball over," Michael Malone said of Mudiay's turnovers early this season. "I think we have to start making the simple play, not trying to make plays that haven't even developed yet, trying to play in really tight spaces and crowds."
After the Nuggets abandoned the Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic frontcourt following Denver's 125-101 loss to the Golden State Warriors on November 10 to drop their record to 3-5 on the season, Mudiay's mindset and play started to change.
Suddenly, there was more spacing for the 6-foot-5 point guard to operate in the halfcourt and more nooks and crannies for the ball-handler to dart and dash into and then kick out to shooters. Mudiay also started to make the "simple play," rather than trying to force the issue every time down the floor.
"I care about some stuff now, I'm not trying to make a home-run play," Mudiay said after Denver's 110-107 win over the Chicago Bulls. "I'm actually trying to make the easy, simple play. We said we want to play fast. Early on, I was playing too fast, even for myself, but I figured out if I don't have anybody in transition, just bring it out."
"It's huge, they can both shot, spread it out," Mudiay went on to say about playing with more lineups featuring Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler next to one big man up front. "So when you get downhill, you either got a layup or your spread or you can kick it out to one of them."
Since Denver's loss at home to Golden State, Mudiay is turning the ball over just twice times per game and has upped his assists by close to one per game. After a six-assist, zero-turnover night in the Nuggets' 120-104 win over the Phoenix Suns, Mudiay's ongoing transformation was apparent.
In Denver's win over Phoenix a few weeks back, Mudiay dished out six assists to zero turnovers. In the Nuggets' blowout win over the Jazz four nights later, eight assists, no turnovers. Against the Thunder last week, a game Denver ended up losing in overtime, Mudiay handed out five assists to just one turnover. Most recently, six assists and two turnovers in Denver's road win over the Suns. Throughout his last seven games, Mudiay has handed out 38 assists to just 11 turnovers and Denver's offense is humming at 106.6 points per 100 posessions, the ninth-best mark league-wide over that span.
"We addressed it a little bit after the Portland game," Malone said of Mudiay's turnovers. "And in order to get an assist guys have to get shots. We haven't been shooting the ball great. I just want him to have more of an understanding: Be a playmaker first. The ball is going to be in your hands a ton, but look to get other guys involved."
"That's where it has to start with our point guard," Malone continued about Mudiay's play against Phoenix back on November 16. "I thought he let the game come to him. Didn't try to force things, he's moving the ball, making plays for his teammates."
Mudiay's best skill is still getting into the paint and using his vision to make the smart play, whether that's kicking out to a shooter or dropping the ball off to a big. He's concentrating on making the easy play now, taking his time and assessing what the defense is giving him before dropping a bounce pass, here to Jameer Nelson, where in the past he might have tried to finish among the trees inside.
When in the pick-and-roll, another area where Mudiay should excel, he's not looking to go to the rim every time and finish like he was earlier in the season. Again, he's taking his time, keeping his head up and looking to get his bigs involved.
In transition, Mudiay is playing more conservative as well. He's still looking to attack the defense, but not forcing things as he might have done to start the year.
Malone wants his point guard to be a playmaker and look to get his teammates involved first, and a scorer who looks for his own offense second.
"Point guards and floor leaders have to get everybody involved," Malone said of Mudiay. "Get them comfortable and then when the opportunity presents itself throughout the game, take your shot."
That message has been received loud and clear by Mudiay, especially over Denver's recent stretch of games where the Nuggets have gone 4-3 since their win over the Suns back on November 16. Powered by Mudiay, the Nuggets are playing more team-oriented, unselfish basketball and reaping the benefits.
Still, there are kinks that need to be ironed out. Denver has to find a formula to win close games and put away teams, as evident by their recent overtime loss to Oklahoma City and needs to trim their rotation, something that isn't completely necessary until they get fully healthy. Mudiay has to shore up his handle as well, which has been surprisingly loose in transition and the halfcourt so far this season, and his jumper, which still has a long way to go to be reliable.
However, after starting the season in a slump, Mudiay is coming on at just the right time for the Nuggets, who look poised to take another step forward in December.