NBA

Why Evan Mobley’s unique two-way potential makes him generational

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

A few months into the 2021-22 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers boast an impressive 21-17 record. For the first time this century, it looks as if the franchise will make the playoffs without LeBron James leading the way. Several factors have played into this Cavalier surge; the growth of Darius Garland & Jarrett Allen and the coaching of J.B. Bickerstaff. But few players have been quite as integral to Cleveland’s success as rookie Evan Mobley.

In his first year, Mobley is already proving to be one of the most impactful rookies of recent memory. Behind his two-way value and elite versatility, Mobley has a legitimate chance to capture the rookie of the year award. But this trophy is just one of many that the generational prospect will contend for in his career. 

All-NBA defense

Dec 13, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley (4) defends a shot by Miami Heat center Dewayne Dedmon (21) in the fourth quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cavs selected him with the third overall pick, Mobley had lofty defensive expectations in front of him. After all, he was a lengthy and mobile defensive hybrid coming out of college. Thus, many projected All-Defensive team potential from Mobley one day.

Less than a few months into his first NBA season, Mobley has already met those expectations. He’s not just a great defender for a rookie; he’s a great defender, period. So far, he averages 0.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game to go with 6.6 defensive rebounds. 

Furthermore, he ranks favorably in nearly every defensive advanced stat imaginable. As of now, Mobley ranks 11th in the entire league in 538’s Defensive RAPTOR metric, eighth in defensive win shares and ninth in defensive box plus-minus. As a result, his Cavs own the league’s third-best defense. 

Mobley’s defense goes far beyond the numbers. His impact shows up in the film as well. His excellence begins with his physical tools: a freakish 7-foot frame and a rare 7’4″ wingspan. He’s big enough to muck up drives to the basket as a rim protector, and he disrupts passing lanes to generate fastbreak opportunities. 

But Mobley isn’t your average 7-footer. Unlike many traditional defensive anchors of the past, Mobley supplements his rim protection with modern-day versatility. He’s agile enough on his feet to stay with guards laterally and defends the pick-and-roll effortlessly. Whether it be switching onto a guard in space, trapping the ball-handler with his long arms, or rushing through the lane to cover a defensive breakdown, Mobley can do it all. 

His discipline as a defender is fantastic, too. Most defenders his age excessively bite on shot fakes and commit unnecessary fouls. But Mobley’s the exception to that rule. He rarely falls for fakes and reads opponents’ movements instantly. This combination of raw talent and IQ is rare. And together, the two aspects of Mobley’s defense give him an enticing defensive package in any situation.

If he slides over late in help, his freakish wingspan and long strides make up for it. Or if he defends a more powerful opponent in isolation, his IQ, technique, and reaction time still make him a worthy matchup. 

Mobley’s defense by itself is worth writing home about. It’s the main reason he looks like a seasoned veteran rather than a young rookie. But it’s far from the only thing that has fans excited for his future. 

Offensive promise

Dec 28, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley (4) shoots a jump shot against New Orleans Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez (9) during the first half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Through 30 career games, Mobley averages 14.8 points and 2.5 assists on 50.1/30.6/76.7 splits (55.7% true shooting). Unfortunately, Mobley’s offense lacks the same maturity and production that his defense brings. But it’s still intriguing. In college, he turned heads with his smooth handle and versatile jump shooting, both of which are traits that have served him well in the pros. 

While he’s not yet an efficient mid-range sniper, Mobley’s jump shot sets him apart from many of his peers. He’s shooting 30.6% from long range (passable for a young big). and has the finesse to fire jumpers off the dribble or with a smooth post-fade. 

However, Mobley isn’t without flaws. His skinny frame limits his strength as a post scorer. He also naturally lacks experience as a rookie. But he’s just 20-years old. The flashes often matter more than the raw statistical output for a young player. 

Even then, Mobley already has both. On top of his current production, his flashes foreshadow a glimpse of the bright future.

The right situation

Dec 31, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) celebrates with forward Evan Mobley (right) after a dunk during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Part of growing into a great player starts with the right situation. Players like Andrew Wiggins and D’Angelo Russell only blossomed when they found their ways onto new teams that fit their play styles. But luckily, Mobley doesn’t need a trade to reach his ceiling. His situation with the Cleveland Cavaliers couldn’t be better.

While they’re already a competitive team, the Cavs are best suited to contend for championships in the future. Behind the young core of Darius Garland (21), Collin Sexton (23), Jarrett Allen (23), and Isaac Okoro (20), their future looked bright even before they selected Mobley. 

And now, with Mobley in the mix, they added yet another young piece full of potential. Mobley will have the chance to grow next to his several young teammates simultaneously. It’s an opportunity that won’t rush his development. His youthful potential fits right in with the theme of the young Cavs.

Additionally, Mobley works well in Cleveland from a purely stylistic point of view. As mentioned earlier, he already forms a dynamic interior defensive duo with Jarrett Allen. The two young bigs post a 102.39 defensive rating on the court together, the best in the league. 

The duo mutually complements each other, too. What Mobley lacks as a skinny isolation defender in the post, Allen makes up for it with his imposing physical strength. And while Allen is a subpar offensive creator, Mobley compensates for that with his shooting, ball handling, and passing.

But that’s only a fraction of what Mobley adds next to a teammate. Additionally, he’s an athletic rim runner who forms a dynamic offensive duo next to point guard Darius Garland. Mobley’s strong lob finishing and agility around the basket match Garland’s excellent playmaking. 

It’s another mutual relationship. Together, the duo has engined the 13th best offense in basketball. That mark is up from a measly 28th-ranked unit the year prior.

Mobley’s rare skills and versatility make him an intriguing two-way prospect. Once he fills out his frame and enters his prime, expect Mobley to assert himself as a top-tier big on one of the league’s most exciting teams.

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