They Can't All Be Winners, Part 14: Denver Nuggets

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Emmanuel Mudiay is 19 years old, six-foot-five, long-limbed, a dribbler, a non-shooter, has a cool, rye-grassy head of hair and a warm smile. It’s vertigo-inducing to think about what he will be in seven or eight years, not just in terms of how good he might become, but in terms of how he will have become a familiar presence in the lives of NBA fans: a known quantity, with a whole index of things thought and said about him, following him around, defining him in that blurry, noise-layered-over-noise way athletes are defined. Emmanuel Mudiay means little to us now—a pile of Chinese Basketball Association clips and a few deferential interviews—but in time, someone will say Emmanuel Mudiay, and we will think I know what that collection of syllables means in the way that Blake Griffin or Rajon Rondo instantaneously forms an image in the mind’s eye and sends a feeling down the spine.

This is sort of what we’re talking about when we talk about rookies’ strengths and weakness, though it’s something far less specific and bong-rippish than speculating on how we will come to know a player, and what that will be like. It makes more sense to say Mudiay will struggle with NBA defenses if his jumper doesn’t improve than Mudiay, in February of his fourth year, will cause you to flip away in anger as he clanks his fifth consecutive three-pointer. The second thing describes watching an athlete play; the first is drier and more abstract: a report card. Long-range shooting: C-minus.

These report cards are remarkably shitty tools, if you’re aiming to understand a player. They’re undescriptive; they’re speculative; they’re bloodless. They exist because of our impatience, a desire that impossible-to-comprehend things be made comprehensible for us. We want to know if our team made a good draft choice, or if we’re going to enjoy watching him. We want to know if we will feel the way about Emmanuel Mudiay that we feel about Rajon Rondo... or will it be closer to Tyreke Evans?

The glorious thing about watching sports—which lays bare the absurdity, not of wanting to know the shape in your mind’s eye that Emmanuel Mudiay will one day produce, but of bothering to try in vain to find out—is that it is in the moment both a low-grade intellectual activity—they need to stop going under the pick-and-roll; Kyrie’s killing them—and, more than that, primally satisfying—what’s he-? oh! hey! no! wow! And it’s through the accumulation of these experiences inflicted upon us by a player—what’s Mudiay gonna do here? and Mudiay’s unconcious tonight!—that we come to understand him. And that’s something that’s never going to be sketched out on a report card. It wouldn’t fit on a scroll as long as a firehose. Why try? Well, we’re curious. That impulse unchecked looks a lot like studious idiocy.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards Cleveland Cavaliers Brooklyn Nets | New York Knicks

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