Evan Mobley looks like the real deal.
It’s early — just four games into the season — but Mobley has been as good as the Cavs could have hoped he’d be right away. Primarily playing power forward with some dashes of center, he’s altering and blocking shots, eating up space when switched onto guards and looking like he can anchor a defense right now.
Take his performance on Oct. 23 against the Hawks — 17 points, 11, rebound, 4 blocks, 2 steals — for instance. On that night, he effectively took John Collins out of the game, using his extensive frame to cut Collins off from Trae Young and the rest of the Hawks’ offense. (Collins is averaging 16.5 points per game on 11.5 shots per game in his career. He had six points on eight shots against Cleveland.)
The blocks in particular show how good Mobley already is. He’s not just racking up blocks when shots are funneled to him at the rim — he’s doing anything and everything possible.
He’s been effective on offense too, playing within the Cavs’ system while getting his feet wet. Most of the time, Mobley runs the floor, sets screens, slides into the dunker spot, and hits the offensive glass. To round out his diet, he mixes in a few post-ups and pick-and-pop three-pointers to keep defenses honest. His passing is showing good early returns, too. Per Cleaning The Glass, he has assist percentage in the 60th percentile of bigs and is in the 100th percentile in assist to usage ratio. He is adding to the offense, not slowing it down to accommodate him.
If Mobley plays at this level on average throughout the year — there will be ups and downs, because that’s what happens for young players in an 82 game season — he might already be the Cavs’ best player. At the very least, it’s clear that he’s going to be at the center of whatever Cleveland is building. There are pieces there to forge the future with — Darius Garland in particular matters — but he’s going to be the team’s main focus. If a lot breaks right for the Cavs, he might be able to elevate this team right now.
“The longer you leave him on the floor, just good things happen,” Bickerstaff said after the Cavs played the Grizzlies in their season opener. “And you don’t have to do a lot for him to get involved in the game. You don’t have to shut down your offense to throw him the ball in iso game. Defensively, you don’t have to make any adjustments because he’s capable of doing a lot.”
Figuring out how to best support Mobley is now the biggest duty for the Cavs in the short and long-term. As Mobley begins his career, they’ve smartly added pieces to supplement Mobley and the rest of the team. At center, Jarrett Allen can handle the bigger, bulkier bodies and some of the brunt that comes with that position while Mobley grows into his body. Their long-term fit is not a question for right now.
Ricky Rubio, even if he won’t start when Garland is healthy, gives Cleveland another veteran on the floor to organize the offense and keep everything moving. (It wasn’t an accident that Rubio closed the game over Collin Sexton on Sunday when Cleveland had a chance to win the game. Garland was out and they needed someone to conduct an Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Mobley and Allen foursome.) The structure they provide is needed. Even Kevin Love, now coming off the bench, creates structure by spacing the floor and adding extra playmaking off of Mobley.
Arguably the biggest choice the Cavs have made for right now, however, is starting Markkanen at the three over Isaac Okoro. It’s not hard to figure out why Bickerstaff went in that direction — Markkanen provides needed spacing off of Mobley and Allen, even if he has troubling defending wings and can’t really punish teams for putting a wing on him. The Hawks, for instance, had Kevin Heurter defend Markkanen for most of Saturday. This isn’t new either — it’s a trend that dates back to Markkanen’s time with the Bulls. Cleveland had to know this when they acquired and paid him over the summer.
So far, Cleveland has kept Mobley inside when playing with Markkanen, allowing he and Allen to protect the rim in tandem and let Mobley use his length off-ball. But it’s worth wondering if this is sustainable — at some point, Bickerstaff may have to have Mobley guard the opposing team’s starting three if only to avoid creating an obvious weak point. He did say after the Nuggets game that he would wait until the 10 game or so mark before making any changes so the decision could be made with the proper data available. Cleveland’s 99-87 win over Denver was also another game where a wing scorer who could have cooked Markkanen (in this case Michael Porter Jr.) didn’t have a big night. So far, lineups with Markkanen at small forward are, on average, -1.1 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 103 and a defensive rating of 104.1.
Okoro isn’t a perfect fit either, at least for what Mobley is right now. He shot 29% on three-pointers last year, including 29.7% on catch-and-shoot attempts, per nba.com/stats. That’s not good enough. Okoro’s defense — particularly against guards — is, however, very good and it’s not hard to see Cleveland having a good defense by playing Okoro, Mobley and Allen together.
If Okoro can improve his shot — maybe bumped up to league average and throw in some cutting and attacking closeouts for variety — to avoid being a minus, perhaps this question answers itself. It also could be answered simply by Mobley himself becoming a respectful three-point shooter.
“We just want Isaac to be comfortable,” Bickerstaff said last week. “I think that’s been the most difficult part is finding the spots where he’s most comfortable on the floor — on the offensive end of the floor. Defensively, we know what we’re going to get from him every night. But what we want him to do is be in positions of comfort offensively.”
This, though, is a good problem to have to solve. It’s better than what the Cavs have had to sort through in recent years, as Mobley is the best prospect the team has had since drafting Kyrie Irving in 2011. He also may be the team’s best two-way, system-defining prospect since drafting a certain kid from Akron back in 2003. Figuring out how to best support a player like Mobley is the kind of question that, if answered correctly, this gets the Cavs somewhere.