Evan Mobley has been a revelation for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
The No 3 pick in the latest NBA Draft, who won the October/November award for Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, is most people’s favourite for the Rookie of the Year award and it is clear to see why given the transformational effect he has had on the organisation.
Although his offensive output has been surprisingly strong, his calling card is on defense where he is a mobile, switchable defender across all five positions. Plugging him into the Cavaliers line-up has proved transformative on the defensive end with the team going from a defensive rating of 113.5 last season, which ranked 25th in the league, to 104.2 and second in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors juggernaut.
The fact the team went 0-4 in his absence recently and has gone 13-6 with him to rank among the Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls – from a team which finished near the bottom last season – is quite the change. It is not unlike the effect the arrival of LeBron James (twice) has previously had on his home-state ball club.
Image: Evan Mobley, right, poses for a photo with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected third overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2021 NBA Draft
When he was drafted as a rookie, he helped to increase the team’s number of wins by 18 and then subsequently to a winning record and four seasons of 50 wins-or-more across his first eight years with the organisation.
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That tanked by 42 wins to a record of 19-63 after he left to join the Heat and similarly to first time around, they improved by 20 wins after he rejoined in 2014 as well as getting to the NBA Finals in four straight seasons.
Getting to the NBA Finals again may be a stretch, especially with Collin Sexton now ruled out for the season, but he may end up having an even greater effect on the number of wins in his rookie year in Cleveland than even James managed.
Drilling further into that defense
Mobley is defending 17.3 field goal attempts per game, which ranks fourth in the entire league, ahead of the likes of superstar defensive players such as Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
His versatility which sees him perfectly capable of defending players of all sizes on the perimeter with his movement, instincts and IQ, as well as being a potent rim protector when stationed in the paint, makes him already the principal name on the scouting report, less than 20 games into his first NBA season, when teams are facing the Cavs.
That same versatility means the Cavaliers can go either big or small alongside him depending on what head coach JB Bickerstaff feels will best suit the game situation. And it is those defensive aspects which made Mobley impossible to replace when he was out of the line-up.
Prior to him being ruled out, opponents had made just 52 per cent of their attempts within five feet when Mobley was the primary defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats (per ESPN) putting him 10th among players who have defended at least 10 such shot attempts. By contrast, opponents have shot 60 per cent against Love and 67 per cent against Lauri Markkanen from that range. Also, according to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Cavs’ defense is allowing 8.8 points fewer points per 100 possessions when Mobley is in the game than when he sits. That is very telling.
Mobley has been an absolute game-changer individually for the Cavs, looking like an anchor on the defensive end for years to come, and no doubt he has showcased All-Defense and Defensive Player of the Year potential.
Mobley has been great from the start
Eight of the Cavaliers first 11 games this season were on the road. That could have caused great problems for a rookie adjusting to a new league, but the Cavs went 7-4 across those games and held opponents to an average of 102.6 points in the opening month, the lowest opponent scoring average in the Eastern Conference.
Across games considered for his recent award which he won despite missing those four games with a sprained elbow – a notable achievement in itself – Mobley averaged 14.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.94 steals and 1.76 blocks in 33.8 minutes. His 30 blocks in that time were double the number of the next closest rookie Scottie Barnes and Mobley tallied at least one block in 15 of the 17 games he appeared in, with eight of those games seeing him record two blocks or more, again a leading mark among rookies.
The tone was set with his debut game against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he started for the Cavaliers and scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished six assists, and produced one steal and one blocked shot in 38 minutes. He shot over 50 per cent from the field, included 1-of-2 from beyond the arc.
Highlights of the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Memphis Grizzlies in Week 1 of the NBA – the game where Mobley made his debut
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Mobley became just the second rookie in history to record at least 17 points, nine rebounds, six assists, one steal and one block in a debut game after Deandre Ayton.
“I feel like I did good. I felt comfortable out there,” Mobley said. “I feel like we played a pretty good game. We didn’t get the win, but, overall, I feel like it was a pretty good first game for me.”
It also took him just three games to register his first career double-double when he performed very impressively against last season’s Eastern Conference finalists the Atlanta Hawks with 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in a 101-95 win.
Offense and durability
Everyone is talking about the defense but on the offensive end Mobley has also showed great versatility and an expansive skillset so far.
Top US journalist Mike Schmitz summed it up well when he said Mobley “has proved valuable as a lob catcher, three-point shooter, short roll passer, pick-and-roll ball handler, mid-post scorer”.
The numbers are solid too. Mobley is averaging 14.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists over 33.8 minutes through 19 games so far.
A showcase game on that end came when he dominated Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson and put up a career-high of 26 points, nine rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block against the New York Knicks.
Highlights of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trip to the New York Knicks in Week 3 of the NBA
Also very notable, is how quickly Mobley returned from his injury. What was meant to keep him out for a minimum of two weeks and up to a month, only kept him out for 12 days in the end. And when he returned from the four-game absence he came close to a double-double as the Cavaliers produced a commanding win over the Orlando Magic.
Mobley finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists in 33 minutes in the 105-92 win. He went 5-of-12 from the field, including 2-of-4 from three-point range. He also contested 16 shots, once more showcasing that defense.
His ability to bounce back so quickly from a knock though, is very positive for the Cavs and the dexterity of his offensive output, coupled with his shooting percentages of 47.7 per cent overall, 33.3 per cent from three-point range, 77.6 per cent from the line, for a 50.5 effective field goal percentage is superb – especially for someone primarily lauded for his defensive impact.
Given the potential for growth for rookies on the offensive end, all of that bodes very well for Cleveland.
What the great and the good are saying
Coach JB Bickerstaff has known from the very start that the Cavs had a stud.
Following the rookie’s debut against the Grizzlies, he said: “When we did our homework pre-draft we knew he was the guy. We got very lucky that he got to us at three.
“His skillset at that size, there is not a lot he can’t do, and he just does it through the flow of the game. He doesn’t have to stop the game to get to his point and have an impact. He took all of the challenges. He was impressive tonight.”
Team-mate Kevin Love has been similarly impressed with the Cavs’ new young star.
“He has a huge future in front of him. It doesn’t surprise me that he is able to do that. He is going to make a number of All-Defensive teams in his career. He is just getting starting.
“Once he really goes through the league a couple of times, like any rookie, once he figures it out and realises how good he is, you’re going to see him make those teams [suffer]. Blocking shots, getting steals and rebounding… He is going to be a guy who is going to get a double-double every night.”
Sky Sports pundit BJ Armstrong believes Evan Mobley will one day be the best player in the NBA and lead the Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Finals
One of the most knowledgeable basketball pundits of them all, Zach Lowe of ESPN, made Mobley his pick for rookie of the year so far in his weekly ’10 things’ column on Friday. He wrote extensively about the Cavaliers’ defense and gave a quick nod to Mobley.
Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors faced the Cavaliers when Mobley was out injured, he has been monitoring his progress closely from afar.
The three-time NBA champion head coach and one-time Coach of the Year said: “He is a really impressive young player on both ends. I mean, his defensive instincts, passing, mid-range shooting. He just seems to have a really good feel for the game.
“They definitely have a good, young guy and he is only going to get better as he fills out and gets stronger and more seasoned.”
Biggest impact since ‘The King’
LeBron James has been aware of Mobley’s abilities for a while, given the 20-year-old faced the Los Angeles Lakers’ son Bronny in high-school playoff basketball in 2019 with the Rancho Christian School. He was named the Most Valuable Player of The Classic at Damien tournament after finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Bronny’s Sierra Canyon.
In his first appearance against James Sr, Mobley finished with a then-career-high of 23 points, leading the Cavaliers in scoring on the night, converting on 10-of-16 from the field and 1-of-2 from three-point range. He also grabbed six rebounds, dished three assists and made two steals over 36 minutes during a 113-101 loss.
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James said: “He is going to be a damn good basketball player in this league.
“Obviously, it’s so crazy because he was just playing against my son a couple of years ago. It seems more weird by the day. He was playing against my son in the playoffs two years ago. Obviously, we saw what he did in the tournament, just electrifying.
“Cleveland has a good one.”
If James is saying that, it must be true. It is also true, based on the evidence so far, to say that Mobley is the most transformative star the Cavaliers have had since ‘The King’ himself.