Within hours of his October announcement that he was skipping college and signing a professional deal in the Chinese Basketball Association, Emmanuel Mudiay found himself becoming one of the biggest news stories on two different continents.
America wanted to know everything it could about the teenage point guard, who was already being touted as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. China was equally fascinated. The CBA had been importing Americans into its league for almost two decades but never one who was weeks removed from graduating high school. The fact that Mudiay was joining the Guangdong Tigers, one of China’s most successful teams, added further intrigue to the situation.
But six months later, it’s almost as if Mudiay never happened. The point guard is still in China but no one is really paying any attention. Guangdong, as they do every year, have won a ton of games and at the time of writing are making a deep run into the playoffs, but Mudiay is watching it all from the stands. It’s a weirdly anti-climatic situation that neatly sums up the often cutthroat nature of Chinese basketball.
It’s a weirdly anticlimactic situation that neatly sums up the often cutthroat nature of Chinese basketball.
When Mudiay first arrived in China in the fall of 2014, Guangdong were already thinking about the CBA Finals that would begin in March the following year. The Tigers had made the playoffs every year since 1997 and won seven out of the last 10 CBA titles. Making the postseason had never been a problem for Guangdong, but in recent years, winning championships was. The previous year, they had been beaten in the semifinals by Stephon Marbury's Beijing Ducks, who had also defeated them in the 2011-12 CBA Finals. Guangdong’s veteran roster was hugely experienced but it was felt the team needed a burst of youth to return it to dominance. The lightning quick, all-action Mudiay was set to be that difference maker.
Guangdong, regarded as the best run sports organization in China, looked to have out-thought the competition once again. Normally a player with the elite skill set of Mudiay would never be available to teams on the international circuit. They stay in the NBA for 15 years and then retire without ever leaving America. But by offering such a player the chance to bypass his one-and-done year in the college ranks, Guangdong were now getting the services of a future top NBA draft pick for a year. In turn, Mudiay would help the Tigers win a championship and then fly home to be picked very high in the forthcoming draft. It was a perfect plan.
Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly work out that way. In December, Mudiay would be injured 10 games into his professional career. Given that the CBA regular season is only 38 games, Guangdong couldn’t wait for him to recover. The Tigers brought in NBA bench player Will Bynum as a stop-gap fix, only for the veteran point guard to help Guangdong go on a historic run. The Tigers would win a record-breaking 27 games in a row whilst Bynum would average over 20 points a night and be voted onto the CBA’s All-Star team.
The talent that made people talk about him as a potential top five pick remains very real.
All of this meant Mudiay quickly became the odd man out. Most CBA teams are only allowed two foreign players on their active roster and the Tigers didn’t want to use both slots on point guards. Bynum was the man in form so he stayed. The other spot was given to Chris Daniels, the team's starting center who last played in America for the NBA D-League's Santa Cruz Warriors. All that Mudiay could do was work out with the Guangdong training staff and watch the team keep on winning.
Despite being sidelined, Mudiay has not been having a bad season. Indeed until he got injured, he was averaging 17.7 points, 6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. But in China, winning is the only acceptable currency. As soon as Mudiay went down and Bynum had his hot start, the Tigers moved on. Nothing personal, it’s just business.
Mudiay, though, is making the most of this isolation. Recent photos on social media show that he is training with the Tigers staff, and preparing for a return to America and the various pre-draft workouts. Given that he is still under contract with Guangdong, he is essentially getting paid to prepare for the next big step in his life. Meanwhile, NBA draftniks all continue to suggest Mudiay’s stock is relatively high. No one is losing sleep about his shortened season in the CBA. Remember, Kyrie Irving was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 despite only playing 11 games for Coach K. Like most one-and-done prospects, teams are picking on potential and Mudiay has buckets of it.
When Mudiay did play in China, he impressed, albeit in a league where defense is traditionally bad. The slashing, Derrick Rose-esque drives to the rim were all present and correct. Although still learning the nuances of running an offense, Mudiay also showed a nice eye for passing and seemed comfortable hitting his teammates in stride for easy buckets. The talent that made people talk about him as a potential top five pick remains very real.
Mudiay probably didn’t think he’d spend most of his first year as a pro watching games from the stands, but those are the breaks in the CBA. Soon enough, he’ll return to America as a millionaire destined to become a multi-millionaire. But for now, he has to watch Will Bynum—an undrafted journeyman from Arizona and Georgia Tech—try and win a title for his Tigers.