As the Cleveland Cavaliers battled through an early-season West Coast road trip, it was a special moment for rookie big man Evan Mobley. Mobley, a San Diego native and former USC Trojan, made his first return home to Southern California as a professional to take on both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"It feels great to be back in LA," said Mobley to Cavaliers sideline reporter Angel Gray during the team's win over the Clippers. "I'm just trying to represent for the city."
Through all the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and plenty of his family in the stands, Mobley also made a statement in both of Cleveland's tilts at the Staples Center. In a gritty win over the Clippers, Mobley put up 12 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal. Against the Lakers, meanwhile, Mobley chipped in 23 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal. Mobley was also a key reason why the Cavaliers were able to hang with the Lakers down the stretch
On the season, Mobley is averaging 15.3 points per game on 53.0% shooting to go along with 8.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals heading into Cleveland's Saturday night matchup against the Phoenix Suns. He also leads the entire league by a considerable margin with 104 contested shots and is averaging 17.3 contests per game.
But, what really stood out more than the counting stats was Mobley's defensive effort that can't be seen in a box score. On Wednesday night, Mobley showed his switchability and was a key factor in containing superstar Paul George on the perimeter. He also made life hard for Reggie Jackson and, at times, French forward Nic Batum. He also showcased this Monday against Denver's Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. as well as on Friday with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis of the Lakers. To fully understand, and appreciate, Mobley's defensive ability at such a young age you need to tune in to wherever the Cavaliers are playing that night.
"The defensive ability of Mobley is just superb," said an Eastern Conference assistant coach. "Not only do they protect the paint on a night-to-night basis but both of them are able to switch onto the perimeter with so easily. Especially Mobley, who is just a rookie! It's unfair! They can put opposing offenses in hell on any given night!
"Cleveland is in such a good place going forward and J.B. is going to have so much fun scheming around a player as gifted as that rookie of his is."
This impressive stretch to start the season is a feather in the cap of Mobley, the Cavaliers front office and coaching staff as well. In Cleveland's recent win over the Atlanta Hawks, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff utilized a 3-2 zone defensive scheme, which is fairly uncommon, with Mobley as the centerpiece of it. After the game, Bickerstaff had high praise for his rookie on how well he handled the in-game adjustment.
"It’s a Flip Saunders zone that I watched a lot when I was in Minnesota,” said Bickerstaff. “Seeing Evan’s ability to move through that made me think of when K.G. was playing at the top of that zone. That position he plays in that zone is not an easy position. You’ve got to quarterback it from the front and also see and be aware of what’s behind you. The way he picks up things, you tell him something and he goes and does it, and that’s not common for young players.”
For those who may not know, K.G. is short for Kevin Garnett, arguably one of the greatest power forwards of all time. For his career, Garnett was NBA MVP, a 15-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, a perennial All-NBA member and most importantly an NBA Champion. If Cleveland gets only some of that from Mobley then they have truly a one-of-a-kind player on their hands that will shape their identity going forward.
"Heading into the 2021 Draft, we had Mobley rated as the top overall prospect and I can see why J.B. compared him to K.G.," said a scout for a Western Conference contender. "We had no realistic shot of drafting him but we were and continue to be so high on his upside as a player. In today's NBA the term unicorn is overused but it honestly is applicable when it comes to Mobley. He very well could be the MVP one day soon."
Sure, there's the defensive upside which is beyond impressive, especially when Mobley only has room to improve and hone his craft over time. But, what's even more exciting is his offensive capabilities as well. Unlike Garnett, Mobley has shown an ability to act as both a primary and secondary creator offensively. There's also the fact that the former Trojan has showcased a willingness to shoot three-pointers. Sure, he doesn't take or make many of them right now but the potential as a shooter is tantalizing.
Going forward, it would be remiss of Cleveland to not build around him to completely maximize his potential and allow him to hit his apex as a player. So far, they've added Lauri Markkanen to provide spacing alongside him but there's still more they could do. According to sources, Orlando's Terrence Ross could be had for cheap and would make perfect sense with Mobley and the Cavaliers. Similar sources also say that Atlanta's Cam Reddish could also be had but the asking price is much higher compared to what Orlando is asking for Ross.
Adding either of those two to the team's existing rotation would only make things easier for Mobley offensively in terms of both playmaking and shooting and in turn, life easier for the rest of Cleveland's roster as well. No, he won't be the league's MVP this season but it's become increasingly clear that Mobley has quietly grown into the Cavaliers' best player in little time at all. As Mobley continues to improve, Cleveland's chances of being a playoff threat feel even more legitimate as well. But, if the Cavaliers fully invest in building around him going forward and he does become the MVP-caliber player he feels destined to be, then Cleveland will be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference in no time at all.