Coming of Age

Still a teenager, Emmanuel Mudiay has already led a life that has taken him from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo to Texas to China and now to Denver and the NBA. His fascinating story and rise in the basketball world has been parallel to UA’s fascinating rise in the sneaker world. When UA inked Mudiay to a deal shortly after he decided to forego his college career at SMU to play in China, he was still a relative unknown outside of the recruiting world. A year and change later, the ballyhooed rookie is no longer a secret and is primed to join the NBA’s next wave of superstar point guards. With MVP point guard Stephen Curry on its roster already, Under Armour Basketball has undergone a major transformation over the past year and Mudiay is in line to break out as the brand’s next big thing in the sneaker world.

Just two years ago, point guards and UA endorsers Brandon Jennings, Raymond Felton, Greivis Vasquez and Kemba Walker graced the cover of this very magazine with the headline “Fantastic 4.” In the 24 months since, each member of that squad has suffered an injury, a team change or a legal issue that slowed their rise. Add the departure of DeAndre Jordan and Derrick Williams from UA to the unpredictable plateau—and in Felton’s case, the demise—of Jennings, Walker and Vasquez, plus questionable designs of sneakers like the Charge BB, and Under Armour was in serious danger of becoming just a blip on the radar going against basketball heavyweights like Nike and adidas.

Months after KICKS 16 hit newsstands, the company struck gold in Golden State after Nike decided not to match Under Armour’s contract offer to Curry. The signing was a risky one at the time as Curry was just one year removed from playing in 26 games due to ankle injuries—plus, Nike was under the belief that he couldn’t sell sneakers. But the move paid off in mind-blowing fashion and became arguably the biggest signing in the sneaker business since LeBron James famously chose Nike over adidas. Curry has proven to be a marketing juggernaut and, as SLAM Fam Tzvi Twersky and Scoop Jackson told the world during an ESPN video interview, his first signature, the Curry One, is selling out in cities like Chicago, a destination that has long been a Jordan/Nike stronghold.

Curry helped Under Armour as a whole reach $3 billion in revenue in 2014 and execs at the Maryland-based headquarters believe the reigning MVP will help UA Basketball hit $1 billion in worth in the very near future. “From the Curry One to the Curry Two, we’ve been modifying and chasing that a little bit where we had pretty limited expectations of what we really wanted to do with that product to begin with,” UA CEO Kevin Plank told the New York Post in a conference call in early June. “It’s going to help elevate what was about a $100 million basketball business. And you know our goal is building a billion-dollar basketball brand.”

Safe to say that things are looking up around the brand’s Baltimore campus.

In the rookie Mudiay, Under Armour has a player unlike any other on its current basketball roster. At 6-5, 200 pounds with long arms, Mudiay is the big, explosive type of point guard that is taking over the League. With the ability to beat defenders off the bounce and finish strong at the rim, Mudiay shows flashes of Russell Westbrook-like athleticism. No one will confuse Mudiay’s shooting ability for Steph Curry’s; the rookie’s game is centered around pure power as he frequently bullies smaller defenders to get into the paint. While Curry plays with finesse, Mudiay has a mean streak and you best believe he didn’t take falling to No. 7 on Draft night very lightly.

Coming out of high school in 2014, Mudiay was ranked No. 5 in the ESPN Top 100, ahead of No. 1 pick Karl Anthony-Towns and No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell. At Under Armour’s 2013 Elite 24 game, he took home MVP honors with a 22-point performance. During halftime of that game, he committed to Larry Brown and SMU for his one year of college ball. As has been well documented in these pages and across the sports media world, Mudiay got caught up in the bullshit of prep school basketball, and out of fear of being ruled academically ineligible for the entire 2014-15 season, he signed a deal with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. (The school, the Deion Sanders-led, UA-affiliated Prime Prep Academy, shut down in January, 2015.) Just as the brand did in ’08 when they signed an Italy-bound Brandon Jennings to a sneaker deal, Under Armour locked up Mudiay for an undisclosed amount following his announcement that he was going overseas.

After an injury-plagued season in China, Mudiay returned to the States to find his Draft stock falling. Once a sure-fire top-five pick, boards and mock drafts had him all over the top 10. Drafted by the Nuggets at No. 7, Mudiay fell to an organization that had been eyeing him all season long, and while he’s happy to have been drafted, it’s clear he feels underrated heading into the season. “I didn’t go to college, so everybody is kind of sleeping on me, I guess you can say,” Mudiay told The Denver Post in July. “But, you know, let them keep sleeping. I’m just going to go out there and play my game and do what I’ve been doing since I was 6 years old.”

The Nuggets certainly weren’t sleeping on the talented point guard and were ecstatic that a player of his caliber fell to No. 7. “The first name that [Nuggets GM] Tim [Connelly] mentioned to me when I got the job, regarding the Draft, was Emmanuel Mudiay,” new Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told Sports Illustrated. “And very rarely do you get the guy that you have rated No. 1, and we feel very, very fortunate to have Emmanuel in the Nuggets family.”

In a July Summer League game against the Kings—the franchise that passed him over at No. 6 and fired Malone early on in the 2014-15 season— Mudiay played with an edge and finished with 19 points and 10 dimes. Following the game, the usually reserved point guard showed that he has a chip on his shoulder and a long memory. “This game was definitely personal for me and Coach Malone,” he told NBATV in a postgame interview. “[Coach] coming from Sacramento, I told him I got him this game and it was personal for me, too.”

Under Armour has wasted no time pushing Mudiay as the next guy up. Ideologically, the Congolese-born Mudiay fits right in with Under Armour’s underdog mentality and the day after the NBA Draft, Under Armour’s ClutchFit Drive 2 Low Emmanuel Mudiay PE was already in stores.

“Emmanuel is really comfortable with the ClutchFit Drive 2 and loves the support and fit,” says Josh Rattet, VP, Team Sports Footwear, Accessories and Equipment at UA. “His game is both explosive and also about change of pace, so traction and great lateral support are both huge for him. He’s constantly cutting and shifting and driving, so that multi-directional grip pattern is something that players can look forward to giving them great traction. This year, we also added Charged Cushioning to the franchise for great comfort and a smooth ride. Emmanuel likes playing in lows, and we’re going to continue to offer this in a low and mid for players.”

Mudiay immediately provides Under Armour with an international appeal that they had hoped to get in Jennings and one they are still building with Curry. With Congolese roots and playing days in China already under his belt, Mudiay is a true international baller and, if all goes well, his history will help turn UA Basketball into an international brand much quicker than expected. “[China] is a market that Under Armour has been heavily invested in for some time, and Emmanuel playing there only added to the awareness of our brand,” says Rattet. “China is a hugely important market for basketball and they have such a great base of passionate fans there. Emmanuel was able to play for one of the most popular teams last season, and we’re definitely looking forward to connecting him with his fans in China more as time goes on.”

Look around the basketball landscape and it’s no secret that young PGs are all the rage—on the court and in the sneaker world. Nike has made it clear that Kyrie Irving will head the next generation of the Swoosh’s signature athletes. adidas is a making a huge push around KICKS cover boy John Wall. Reebok still pumps out Allen Iverson’s signature Questions on a yearly basis and Jordan Brand just dropped Russell Westbrook’s first sig.

For Under Armour, the duo of Curry and Mudiay are the brand’s best shot at challenging Nike for supremacy. When it comes to marketing and investing in its athletes, Under Armour has already proven that they will spare no expense. Mudiay’s NBA journey is just getting started and Under Armour is riding a Steph Curry-esque hot streak heading into the upcoming season. If Mudiay turns out to be the player many are predicting, the Fantastic 4 from a few years ago will be trumped by a dominant duo on the court and on shoe racks across the world.

Peter Walsh is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh.

image via Getty