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NBA AM: Can The Denver Nuggets’ Emmanuel Mudiay Break Out?

Emmanuel Mudiay is not starting for the Denver Nuggets, but can he still have an emergent season?

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In Denver, much of the early focus has been on the integration of four-time All-Star Paul Millsap with franchise centerpiece Nikola Jokic. But Thursday night against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, a new plot line emerged. Former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, who has been supplanted as starting point guard by second-year guard Jamal Murray, became, for one night at least, Denver’s closer.

Mudiay’s big night with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists would have to compete with multiple storylines to emerge as the night’s biggest. OKC came to Denver on a three-game losing streak and desperate for a win. On top of that, reigning MVP Russell Westbrook sent a message to the Nuggets with a flagrant foul on Jokic in the opening moments of a preseason game. This was apparently Westbrook’s way of saying that he hadn’t forgotten about the teams’ chippy meeting in Denver late last season when OKC eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs and Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s single-season triple-double record.

“As far as Russell and Nikola, we just want to play the game,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone pregame. “We’re much more focused on not turning the ball over against a great defense than the Russell/Nikola dynamic.”

With the defection of Eastern Conference talent to the West — typified by OKC’s acquisition of former Knick Carmelo Anthony and former Pacer Paul George — making the Western Conference playoffs will be a massive challenge. So much has gone right for Denver. The team acquired a franchise player in Jokic with a second round pick. Denver convinced Millsap, one of this summer’s most talented free agents, to sign. And the team has stockpiled young talent with a string of successful picks that include Jokic, Murray and starting shooting guard Gary Harris.

“One thing I do like about Jamal is he’s not a guy that is scared or shies away,” said Malone of the anticipated showdown between Murray and Westbrook. “He’s played against a bunch of All-Star guards already.”

But it was Mudiay who stole the show off the bench with a plus-17 performance that trailed only fellow reserve Will Barton and late-game heroics including this dissection of OKC’s defense.

Despite so many positives, one bump in the road has been the disappointing first two seasons for Mudiay after Denver selected him with the seventh pick in 2015. As you can with almost any player, a look at the players drafted immediately after Mudiay gives plenty of opportunities to second guess Denver’s choice. Myles Turner went to the Pacers with the 11th pick in 2015 while Phoenix selected Devin Booker 13th.

Against the Thunder, Mudiay would quiet his critics, at least for the moment. The Thunder lost their fouth straight as Westbrook shot just 6-for-22 with 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The knock on Mudiay has been the three-pointer, and he didn’t shoot above 32 percent in either of his first two seasons. Obviously, it’s only a 12-game sample, but thus far Mudiay is shooting 40 percent on 25 attempts.

“We knew they were going to come out and try to hit us in the mouth, so coach just kept telling us to respond,” Mudiay told TNT’s Ros Gold-Onwude — figuratively speaking — after the win. “We’ve kind of got a new team in a way. We’re trying to figure out how to play with Paul. And coach, I think, is trying to figure out how he’s going to do the rotation.”

So much has gone right for the Nuggets, but if Mudiay can emerge as a serious contributor, Denver will be in an even better place. The Western Conference is as brutal as it gets. All eight playoff spots will be fought for with a ferocity perhaps never equaled. If Mudiay can turn a hot start into an emergent season, it will be one more factor to help the Nuggets stay in that mix.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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