CLEVELAND – Evan Mobley touches the ball in the Cavaliers’ offense about as much as Cedi Osman and Kevin Love.
He’s 21 ½ years old, was the No. 3 pick of the 2021 draft and the runner up for Rookie of the Year last season. The comparisons people place him in are somewhere between lofty and outrageous.
Anthony Davis. Giannis Antetkounmpo. Kevin Garnett. No one says Mobley is as good as any of those perennial All-Stars (and one hall of famer), because at his tender age he is still filling out his 6-11, 215-pound frame.
But right now, today, his coach still says that when the Cavs are at their very best, Mobley is the best player on the floor for them, which frankly is difficult to comprehend given that Donovan Mitchell is literally performing about as well as any NBA player and is on the fringe of MVP discussions .
Mitchell put up one of the best single-game performances in league history on Monday, becoming the first player to ever score at least 70 points with at least 10 assists. Mobley missed that game with a sore ankle, watching from the bench in a snazzy sweater and dark jeans.
Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point night: How it felt in the building as history was made
If witnessing Mitchell’s greatness, and then retaking the floor for the next game Wednesday night against the Suns wasn’t intimidating enough for Mobley, then missing his first four shots and making just one of his first eight had to stick in his mind, at least a little.
But what happened next, with his ninth and final attempt, was another one of those glimpses of Mobley’s slow maturation into a player worthy of those big-shot comparisons. In a tied game with four seconds left, and Mitchell trapped in the paint with the ball in his hands, Mobley slid out to the elbow where Mitchell could see him, fire him a pass, and stand in approval under the hoop as Mobley knocked down the first-game winning shot in 106 career NBA games in Cleveland’s 90-88 triumph.
“For a player in his second year to do that naturally, in that moment, not just freeze up and stand there, that shows how locked in he is to the game,” Mitchell said. “Not having a great shooting night, things aren’t necessarily going his way, and then to come out … and make the biggest shot of the night – that’s huge.”
Most players who enter the league like Mobley – as a top-3 pick – do not almost immediately find themselves surrounded by All-Stars. They usually are on bad teams and struggle to win while they learn with the ball in their hands.
Take Davis, for example, the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft who, in his second season, reached his first All-Star Game, averaged 20.8 points and had the ball in his hands for roughly 25 percent of the Pelicans’ possessions – an astronomical number for a second-year big. The Pelicans, by the way, were awful, a good 14 games under .500. Mobley, by comparison, has a lower usage rate by about seven percentage points on a Cavs team that leads the NBA in home wins and is fourth overall in the East.
“Evan probably doesn’t get the usage that Anthony was forced into, so that’s a different role and probably puts way too much pressure on that kid to start comparing him to AD and Giannis and those guys,” said Monty Williams, the Suns’ coach who was Davis’ coach on the Pelicans back then.
Mobley finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting and eight rebounds against the Suns. For the season, he’s averaging 14.3 points on 10 ½ shots per game (last year he attempted 12 per). Like last year, he’s averaging nearly one steal per game, and he’s actually blocking half a shot less per night than he did as a rookie.
Mobley was out with the ankle injury for Cleveland’s previous two games, and then before that was just OK, statistically, during a three-game losing streak. Some of Mobley’s worst games of the year – poor shooting, low scoring affairs – have come in losses, and he’s drawn some criticism from fans and media locally for the trouble he’s shown with scoring against bigger defenders in post situations. In that regard, Mobley’s tough night individually and winning shot at the end was even more than an anomaly.
More generally, to the untrained eye, it’s hard to see much improvement from his rookie season, which has drummed up some of the grumbling about Mobley. That is partly to his credit, as he burst into the NBA as an immediate impact player defensively, with the kind of discipline and versatility as a rim protector perhaps never before seen on the Cavs, and as a competent, if not yet flash offensive player.
Mobley spent the summer working on his offensive game, particularly on his shot and also on handling the ball in transition, even initiating offense in the halfcourt. Then the Cavs traded for Mitchell, and he has, in a positive way, so thoroughly dominated and sucked any unoccupied air out of the offense.
“A lot of development – and I’m sure this is what Monty was talking about – is opportunity,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “When you get drafted as high as those guys do, you’re typically on a team that’s in development mode and your best players are the ones that are going to get the most amount of reps, the guys with the most potential. What we try to do – and we’ll see how it pans out here – is it’s not about as much individual development; it’s about how much can you impact winning? And we spent a ton of time working on skills and all that stuff, don’t get me wrong. When Evan’s on the floor, how does he impact winning? And he’s a winner by nature.”
Mobley’s arrival in Cleveland is what changed the trajectory of the franchise. His presence next to Jarrett Allen allowed Bickerstaff to build around them defensively, and now the Cavs are literally the NBA’s top defensive team. Going from the league’s worst team over the three previous years prior to drafting Mobley, to nearly reaching the playoffs by losing in the Play-In tournament last season, was a tangible measurement of just quickly having him here had lifted the entire organization. Allen and Darius Garland were the Cavs’ two All-Stars, but it was Mobley whom the Cavs’ deep thinkers pegged as having the biggest upside.
Cavaliers have the NBA’s top defense, and it’s an identity they relish
In fact, Mobley’s presence and his impact on the Cavs is what put them in the position of wanting to make the trade for Mitchell, a deal that included a massive amount of draft capital. Mobley entered last summer believing, because he was told as much, that his role on offense would expand, and he’s had to adjust back to the role he held as a rookie, albeit a slightly smaller one because it would be malpractice for the ball not to be in Mitchell’s hands.
“Every time I go out there, shooting shots, I can find my spots as much as possible and just let the game come to me – try not to force too often,” Mobley said. “That’s what I’ve been focusing on. I mean, you know, some guys have to be the guy and I don’t necessarily have to be the guy on this team, but I’m just gonna try to traditionally produce as much as I can in my role right now.”
Being in the position of having to develop a young player with superstar potential, on the fly, in the heat of trying to win now, is of course a first-world problem. Bickerstaff said Mobley is “an elite passer for his size,” a “point guard,” and has “one-on-one skills.” For those reasons, and because the Cavs fundamentally believe he is a pillar of this franchise for years to come, Bickerstaff said they have to “initiate some of that stuff” with Mobley. In other words, call more plays for him so he can develop those traits in game situations.
“But what we’re trying to build is never putting one person above the greater success of the team,” Bickerstaff said. “So, it is a balance that you have to work because, again, I’ve said this before, when we get to our best, I believe Evan can be our most impactful player. So it’s on us to help him get there.”
(Top Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images)