The Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 108-104 on Monday night, in a meeting of presumable Western Conference also-rans. But it was also a meeting of two point guards at very different phases of their career. Damian Lillard is a young star entering his peak just as the team around him begins to reconfigure and rebuild, with him as the foundation. Emmanuel Mudiay is a brand-new rookie on a team that hasn’t even started to properly rebuild yet because they’re not quite sure of their raw materials. Their matchup was easily the most compelling story of the game, and wouldn’t you know it, the game came down to a key confrontation between the two.
Down four points with less than 20 seconds to go, Lillard drove hard at the cup with Mudiay guarding him. With Kenneth Faried playing the role of super-small center on the floor (and drawn away from the paint at the time), Mudiay was pretty much all that was standing between Lillard and a layup — and then he wasn’t between them anymore, with Lillard going left and blowing by the rookie. But Mudiay recovered for a hell of a block, and the clock ran out on the ensuing scramble.
It was the kind of display of athleticism one is used to seeing from John Wall or Russell Westbrook, and while Mudiay may not have the top-end speed of those two, he has the size and the hops. His offensive game is still very much a work in progress (according to Basketball-Reference, he’s shooting less than 40 percent around the basket and less than 20 from midrange), but you can’t teach the above play. Mudiay’s only played seven games, so it’s really too early to make any judgments, but his physical attributes have certainly translated to the NBA so far.