Many NBA teams will endure loss-stained seasons this year, eyeing the 2021 Draft’s crown jewel in Cade Cunningham as a reward for their fortitude. But the consolation prize for missing out on Cunningham is also entirely worth the struggles because USC center Evan Mobley is a stellar prospect, even if not quite in Cunningham’s realm.
Through 15 games, the 7-footer is averaging 16.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists (2.3 turnovers) and 2.9 blocks on 63.9 percent true shooting (.584/.350/.705 split). Despite a restrictive team context (more on this later), he has been one of the country’s top players, ranking 12th in BPM (12.2) and first among freshman. His two-way dominance pervades throughout most games and he’s the primary reason USC looks the part of a potential second-weekend NCAA Tournament team.
And yet, understanding the tantalizingly special prospect he is requires a vastly deeper look than the outline his college sample has provided. The Trojans’ scheme and personnel, particularly on offense, often run counter to showcasing all that he offers. Mobley projects as a valuable face-up scorer, using an array of skills and tools, but isn’t always granted the freedom to show his full arsenal.
He’s a quick and efficient leaper to convert extension finishes near the rim; NBA defenders are longer than college ones, but Mobley’s leaping ability will still distinguish him athletically and enable him to score over the top most of the time. He eats up space with galloping strides and operates concisely in narrow windows with economical footwork, while possessing a good enough handle to beat defenders, especially big men.
Even when defenders sag off to invite a 3 or long 2, he can manipulate that cushion to his advantage, taking a couple dribbles to promptly rise for a paint shot, relying on his feathery, ambidextrous interior touch. He’s shooting 26 of 58 (44.2 percent) on 2s away from the rim this season. All of these tools shine through on his face-ups.
[On the pass against Arizona State, ignore the turnover, the vision and idea are more important]
The key for his future team is recognizing who Mobley is as a self-creator. Planting him in the on the block with his back to the basket, which happens far too frequently at USC, will not deliver optimal results. His poor core strength and high center of gravity make it difficult for him to generate advantages down low. It’s already been an issue in college occasionally and brawnier NBA defenders are sure to pose further complications, while also mitigating the impact of his agility in space, an asset he’ll wield over most big men.
These face-up opportunities, likely to utilize his driving and interior scoring gravity by pulling in help, allow chances to showcase his passing. One of his best traits is the rate at which he surveys the floor and diagnoses passing reads. With the proper personnel to capitalize off of his playmaking, he’s going to pick apart teams. It’ll force opponents to be timely and selective in how they approach double-teams and help positioning, simplifying some of his scoring load.
Many of his best passes have occurred from the post this season, usually after he’s spurred a double-team his direction. He isn’t going to be a domineering back-to-the-basket scorer in the NBA — meaning fewer doubles to leave someone open will occur — so the translation will not be direct, but the timeliness with which Mobley discerns reads and how he executes them remain salient. His passing is not at all confined to the post, either, featuring short-roll distributing and live dribble faculty.
The short-roll creation is only part of his devastating ball-screen prowess. He’s going to be one of the best pick-and-roll bigs in the NBA, yielding equity as a passer, lob threat and, potentially, floor-spacer. With a 7-foot-5 wingspan, innate body control and springy vertical, Mobley has an elite catch radius above the rim. Toss the ball within his expansive orbit and he will finish plays.
He ranks in the 89th percentile around the rim this season, swiftly transitions from screen to roll and is instinctive in identifying when to slip or dive into space. USC’s lack of viable creators, as well its propensity for posting up in the lane while a pick-and-roll is unfolding, prevent him from thriving, but the mammoth potential he touts is evident. Addressing his core strength deficiency is critical too, propelling him to better merge vertical explosion with power to wrangle with the NBA’s foremost rim protectors. His length and quick leaping give him a high floor as a finisher, but core strength shortcomings could inhibit him from being a premier scorer around the rim.
His finishing and instincts manipulating openings in the defense will also serve him well in dribble hand-off initiation. Pair him with a legit DHO partner and Mobley should feast playing off of their gravity. Elite ones like JJ Redick and Duncan Robinson are difficult to uncover, but really, anyone who forces defenders to consider their choices suffices. Refining his screen-setting to consistently make contact is imperative, albeit rather low-hanging fruit for improvement, but his offensive utility is going to shine when he’s not constrained by such limited guard play, floor-spacing and schematic tendencies.
As previously exhibited, he also is adept at attacking from the perimeter. That ability extends to pick-and-pops. Preferably, the jumper progresses smoothly to command respect, but he also excels at capitalizing on any runway afforded to him by defenders. Even if they sag off to protect against the drive, he owns the touch, extension and quick leaping to benefit, all of which aid him as a face-up scorer. Quite simply, he’ll have utility as a popper, though the value does not solely have to come from deep.
Projecting his 3-ball is an interesting exercise. Throwing on my amateur shot doctor hat will only get me so far, but let’s try anyway. Through 15 games, he’s 7 of 20 (35 percent) beyond the arc and 70.5 percent (67 of 95) from the free throw line. During 150 minutes (14 games) at the 2019 Adidas Gauntlet in AAU play, he went 2 of 10 (20 percent) beyond the arc and 6 of 12 (50 percent) at the line. The willingness to shoot so young is a good sign. The rhythm of his mechanics is pretty encouraging.
His energy transfer is mostly good, though the elongated hitch shortly before his release affects the fluidity and increases the stiffness of his wrist flexion. Streamlining that release to move from a pronounced two-motion shot to a sort of 1.5-motion shot could do wonders, alleviating the issues on the back-end of his energy transfer. A slow-motion compilation helps illuminate my points.
My general conclusion is that Mobley will be a tenable spot-up shooter because the willingness and positive foundational mechanics exist. Tweaking away the hitch is likely important to be much more than just a guy who takes 1.5-2.5 triples per game and knocks them down at a 34-36.5 percent rate. However, I once considered the jumper to be a floor-raising necessity, whereas I now deem it a ceiling-raising skeleton key. If he reaches a threshold that demands opponents close out — and that threshold tends to heighten as one’s interior scoring or slashing aptitude elevates (think Giannis or De’Aaron Fox) — leveraging his driving and agility will be easier. He’ll create more advantages to produce as a scorer and passer. Considerably more avenues to offensive goodness arise. But it is not needed for him to be a very good player offensively.
Face-ups, floor-spacing and pick-and-roll finishing are not the extent of his potential deployment. Mobley’s coordination, touch, handle and agility as a 7-footer can and should be leveraged in other facets, too. Empower him to lead grab-and-go sequences to seek cross-matches in transition. Giannis does this a ton, and it’s one way Mobley should emulate him. Encourage him to spearhead the occasional pick-and-roll as a ball-handler, thrusting a big man into screen navigation, while accounting for Mobley’s driving and passing acumen. Send him downhill off of screens, where his intersection of size and mobility is, once again, a weapon.
There is much more to his offensive repertoire than has been regularly showcased at USC. His future NBA employer must be cognizant of this atypical skillset to maximize him and place defenders in a bind. Scheme him into space and let him cover tons of ground in a brief amount of time before using length, interior touch or passing to capitalize. With those tools, plus close to zero buffering delay as a decision-maker, he can function suitably in a variety of contexts.
He’s a scalable offensive player, who provides finishing, initiating and playmaking. Expecting him to consistently catalyze possessions is misguided, but he will simplify the burden of any ball-handler, while his skillset is simultaneously amplified by their presence, assuming they have notable scoring gravity. A stretch 4 alongside him, clearing the lane for his face-ups, attacks off the catch and rolls to the rim, would be a welcome addition as well. It’s a much easier archetype to land nowadays, meaning Mobley isn’t quite the difficult team-building centerpiece he might’ve been early last decade.
Although Mobley brandishes a variety of paths to offensive functionality, he is unlikely to be a dominant offensive big man. He’s capable of donning many hats, but he remains a complementary player on that end. His lack of strength and fully projectable shooting caps the scoring prowess and the jumper would have to be highly versatile for him to ascend the upper echelon. That’s why a floor-spacing front-court partner and tenable lead guard are vital to constructing an idealized team around him.
The main allure regarding him is his defense, which has a chance to exist in rarefied air among his contemporaries. The gaudy block total, with 44 through 15 games, undersells the level to which he reshapes the offensive approach of opponents. Because of his length and mobility crossover, he is able to play off of defenders, positioning himself to contain any drive, while also contesting or deterring jumpers. It’s his most popular defensive play this season and one with appreciable merit because he’s precisely the archetype to fluster elite pull-up guards, dissuading them from shooting over the top while also owning the lateral movement to stay tethered downhill. Wings with size and strength, a la Luka Doncic and LeBron James, won’t be as heavily influenced (then again, they rarely are), but a plethora of off-the-bounce scorers will struggle against him.
Conceptualize him in the Bam Adebayo archetype of defender rather than, say, Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert, who are stronger and more paint-oriented. This is not to posit a straight-line comparison between Mobley and Adebayo, but rather to establish a general sense of how he’ll flourish defensively. Both, though, offer stylistic diversity and are capable across an array of requirements.
He can play drop coverage, but also is more than capable to switch or hedge ball screens. He’s tremendous in drop coverage because his length and mobility discourage initiators from using the space ahead of them to drive or pull up, allowing the perimeter defender to recover after fighting over the pick, exactly the purpose of such a scheme. As a switch defender, he’s active on his feet and rapidly flips his hips to mirror any change of direction. On hedges or traps, his size and lateral movement are imposing barriers around which to drive or pass.
There are dozens of instances this season when he blankets the team’s primary options, whittles down the shot clock and leaves them with scant, if any, high-value choices. It’s the seal of an imposing big man defender, someone whose alteration and deterrence domain exists well beyond the rim.
One minor issue that stems from so many players refusing to shoot near him is a belief of that as the baseline. Sometimes, he fails to rotate because he just expects guys to bypass a shot and migrate elsewhere. It’s caught him flat-footed or floating out of position on plays where a rotation can be easily executed. Growing to understand that will not be the case as often seems like a routine fix eventually, but is nonetheless worth noting as a potential hurdle to maximizing his defensive output.
Inside, he leans on short-area quickness, acute anticipation, vertical explosion and length to muck up the paint. He’s a stifling help-side rim protector and that, along with his perimeter adroitness are why he should be useful as a 4-man, too. If certain matchups are likely to exploit his high center of gravity and poor core strength, he can play next to another big man who might be better equipped to handle someone such as Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns or Domantas Sabonis — and few stymie any of them as is, because they’re All-NBA-caliber players (or better).
Emphasizing any defensive shortcomings in the post is missing the forest for the trees, though. At his peak, Mobley will almost assuredly have achieved some strength gains to the point of his length, anticipation, body control and quick leaping mitigating any prominent concerns. Post defense matters, but it is not a headlining portion of defense, even for big men. And Mobley frequently applies his length to turn away entry passes, which, to some degree, should help mitigate the flaw.
Most importantly, anyway, the young man is a menace anchoring the paint, playing light on his feet, darting in at a moment’s notice and erasing shots, both on and off the ball. He’s so punctual, intelligent and decisive in every movement, rendering it tough to sneak anything by him. With manipulative positioning, he’s also wily enough to bait guys into taking shots they have no business attempting near him.
The extent to which Mobley checks paramount boxes defensively is absurd. He protects the rim, he limits pull-up jumpers, he rarely fouls (2.1 per 40 minutes), he’s smart, he can handle various coverages, and he has distinguished physical tools. Cleaning up his consistency of contests inside and core strength are likely necessary to reach Defensive Player of the Year levels. Regardless, he’s going to be a terror, possessing high-end versatility and impact during an era that continually demands more from defenses.
Few big men own the length and mobility to flummox pull-up maestros, while being good enough to enforce the back line and supply enough offensive productivity to warrant heavy minutes. The USC 7-footer is next in line.
Feeling optimistic about a runner-up finish in the Cade Cunningham Sweepstakes might seem tough, but the chance to select Evan Mobley, a prospect much closer to rivaling Cunningham for first overall than dropping to third in this class, will be reason to smile for one lucky franchise.