Emmanuel Mudiay is poised to be the Jazz’s backup point guard, but his defense has to get better first

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz’s new point guard Emmanuel Mudiay will wear #8. Standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Mudiay is both taller and longer than the average point guard with a knack for getting rebounds.

Once Mike Conley officially joined the Jazz, he queried the team brass about which players they had interest in pursuing in free agency, then made it a point to reach out to those of them he knew, including his then-prospective backup, Emmanuel Mudiay.

His message?

“When he reached out to me, he said, ‘Forget about the starting role, forget about stuff like that — just go learn as much as you can, try to get on a winning program, and see how it goes,’” Mudiay said. “And I know when you’re winning, you learn so much.”

Of course, as Mudiay seeks to lock down a regular role in the backcourt rotation — a distinct possibility early with Dante Exum being brought along slowly in his latest rehab — he is the first to acknowledge he’s got plenty of learning to do before the games themselves, let alone the winning of them, commences.

While the fifth-year point guard established myriad career-highs on the offensive side last season, including in points (14.8), field-goal percentage (44.6), 3-point percentage (32.9), two-point percentage (49.2) and effective field-goal percentage (49.3), his performance on the other side of the ball illustrated no such progress.

Indeed, last season, Mudiay ranked 85th out of 92 point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric. For comparison’s sake, Ricky Rubio was 10th, Dante Exum 30th, and Mike Conley 35th.

He said coach Quin Snyder made it apparent to him from the outset that he would need to step it up defensively in order to get on the court.

“Since I’ve gotten here, just a lot of the stuff the coaches have pushed me to be better at is definitely on the defensive end,” Mudiay said. “Just locking in every possession, doing it for 48 minutes … just giving multiple efforts and fighting harder over screens and stuff like that. That’s something he’s been pushing me on, making winning plays.”

Mudiay confirmed after practice on Thursday that the first three days of the team’s training camp have been heavily geared toward the defensive side of the ball. He noted that the only real trouble spot he’s had to this point has been getting down the terminology, but that Snyder’s hands-on, demonstrative approach has more than made up for it. Beyond that, he added, it’s mostly been a matter of the coach reminding Mudiay, among others, that “Having a two-time Defensive Player of the Year back there in Rudy [Gobert], he expects us guards to be more aggressive.”

For his part, Snyder said he sees defensive potential in the 6-foot-5, 200-pounder.

“His strength is unique — his strength is a strength. I think he’s learning how to use that defensively,” he said. “Getting down, using his body, being aggressive, being disciplined. His size, as well.”

As for Mudiay’s ability to potentially run the offense, the coach acknowledged, “We’re throwing a lot at these guys right now,” and admitted that getting the former lottery pick there would be a process. The key, he added, was getting Mudiay not to feel overwhelmed, and to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s all just basketball.

“For Emmanuel and some other guys, there’s more coming at you, especially if you’re handling the ball,” Snyder said. “… I want him to embrace being a player. That’s part of who he is. But I think who he is, as much as anything, is a playmaker.”

For now, though, Mudiay is working toward the day when he can be referred to as a defensive presence, as well.

He believes this staff can get him there.

“[Snyder] tells me that I have the potential to be a great defender,” Mudiay said. “If he believes in me, then I’ve gotta believe in myself on that end, too.”