Emmanuel Mudiay

Schmeelk: Is Emmanuel Mudiay For Real?

Knicks Point Guard Has Been Playing Best Ball Of His Career

John Schmeelk
December 17, 2018 - 10:52 am

There’s no question that Emmanuel Mudiay is playing the best basketball of his career in the first 24 games of this season. The Knicks point guard is averaging career bests in points (13.1), in field-goal percentage (46.3) and even in more advanced stats such as true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage, value over replacement player and win shares. It is still fair to ask whether these two dozen games are a sign of things to come or will only be remembered as a mere blip on the radar of a disappointing career.

After a deep dive into the numbers, sadly, it is probably the latter. Mudiay is shooting unbelievably well from areas he never has before. Unless he has transformed himself into an elite two-point, mid-range jump shooter in one offseason, his improved shooting is unlikely to continue, and his effectiveness will decline.

The only way to figure it all out is to break down how Mudiay is getting his points and whether or not he has changed the way he plays to make him a more efficient player over the long haul. His per-36-minute shot stats this year look remarkably similar to what they have always been.

He is averaging 4.6 3-pointers per 36 minutes and 3.9 free throws. His 3-point rate is only slightly higher than his career average of 4.3 3s per game, and his free-throw rate is identical. His shooting from both areas also isn’t much different. His 33 percent 3-point shooting is only a little better than his career average of 31.9, as is his 77 percent free-throw shooting versus his career average of 73.5. In other words, his improved play cannot be found in two of the most efficient ways to get points: behind the 3-point line and at the free-throw stripe.

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The next place to look is his two-point field-goal attempts and how they break down based on shot locations. I used basketball-reference.com for this data. Just under 31 percent of Mudiay’s two-point shots are coming within 3 feet of the rim, less than a percent higher than his career average. He is shooting 53.3 percent on those shots, just 2.5 percent better than his career average. In other words, there hasn’t been much progress in this area, the third area in which players get their highest quality field-goal attempts.

If his improvements aren’t happening at the rim, free-throw line or behind the 3-point arc, it only leaves one place: midrange. As midrange shooting can be extremely volatile, this is not an ideal area for sustained improvement.

NBA.com splits shooting into two areas: in the paint but outside the restricted area, and then in between the paint and the 3-point line. On shots in the paint but not at the rim this season, Mudiay is shooting a sensational 51 percent. Of players with at least 30 field-goal attempts in that zone, Mudiay has the 11th best shooting percentage in the league. Only two guards shoot better than he does: Charlotte's Tony Parker and Golden State's Stephen Curry. Mudiay’s previous single-season career high in that zone was 35 percent as a rookie. The last two seasons he shot 31 percent and 29 percent from there. Fifty-one percent does not seem sustainable from an area where he takes 17 percent of his shots.

The numbers are just as stark between the paint and the 3-point line, where Mudiay is taking 2.2 shots per game (21 percent of his shots). He is shooting a career-best 49.1 percent in these areas of the floor. His previous career high was 35.7 percent. He ranks 18th in the NBA in shooting from midrange (of players with 40 or more attempts), better than players such as Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley and Damian Lillard. Mudiay's history tells us there is no way that he is the 18th-best midrange shooter in the NBA, especially since his shooting from the free-throw line and 3-point line hasn't improved in any significant way.

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These are not encouraging numbers for Mudiay’s continued success. He is not a different player. He is simply shooting astronomically better between the restricted area and 3-point line. The chance that his shooting has taken this kind of jump in one season is hard to believe. He is going to regress back to the mean closer to his career numbers. He might be improving and could have the best numbers of his career when the year is over, but the chances both ranges show improvement of 14 to 20 percent are slim to none.

Trey Burke showed a similar improvement when his shooting percentage jumped to 56.6 percent on shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line (according to basketball-reference.com), way above his career norms. This year his shooting in that area has dropped all the way back down to 45 percent, way closer to his career average. It could happen with Mudiay, too.

Has Mudiay improved elsewhere? Not really. His assist and turnovers averages per 36 minutes are below his career average. His rebound, steal and block numbers are about the same. His usage percentage is unchanged from his career numbers.

His defensive metrics like defensive box plus/minus and defensive win shares are similar to what he has always posted, and the eye test doesn’t show a much improved player. The Knicks are giving up about 2.5 more points per possession when he is on the court versus off the court. He is still not a difference maker on defense.

The more you dig through all the advanced metrics, it becomes clear that the only reason Mudiay is an improved player this season is because he is shooting at career best rates outside the restricted area but inside the 3-point line. If you break it down even further, it is his 57.6 percent shooting from 15 to 19 feet (according to NBA.com) that is making the biggest difference.

As it stands with Mudiay’s contract -- he has a $12 million cap hold next season -- it is unlikely the Knicks would be able to bring him back next season. It would jeopardize the team’s ability to sign a max player now or in the future. The best way they can take advantage of his current hot streak is to trade him.

If there is a team out there that needs point guard help and is buying into Mudiay’s improved shooting, the Knicks need to take advantage of it and get whatever they can back for him. Whether it is a second-round pick or even as a way of getting another team to take Courtney Lee, the best way for Mudiay to help the team long-term is to get something in return for him when he is playing his value is at its highest.

If this shooting spurt is for real, the Knicks may get burned by moving Mudiay. But the odds that it is real are very small. The Knicks need to trust those odds and try to move Mudiay as soon as possible, before the numbers come crashing down the earth.

For the first three years of his career, Mudiay was one of the worst players in the NBA, but this year he is playing like a good backup. The Knicks should trade him before he starts looking like his old self. It could happen sooner rather than later.

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk and you can listen to my new Knicks podcast "The Bank Shot," which can be found on Radio.com, iTunes and other platforms.