When the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted current Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley third overall last July, it marked the franchise’s highest selection since the 2014 NBA Draft.
That year, the Cavs traded top overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love as Cleveland built a Finals mainstay around the recently returned LeBron James and emerging star Kyrie Irving. Nearly six years have passed since that trio validated the Cavaliers’ ambition with the only championship in franchise history.
Since the closing of that championship window, Cleveland has been led by four different head coaches while missing the playoffs three times. But the Cavs have rebuilt by drafting young talent (Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro) and acquiring solid veteran contributors (Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen), and they now find themselves in playoff contention within a competitive Eastern Conference.
Key to Cleveland’s resurgence has been Mobley, whose versatility has established him as a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. The 7-foot USC product combines a ferocious defense inside and on the perimeter with an ability to get easy buckets in the paint and find his teammates with pinpoint passes. With injuries to his fellow Cavs, including a fractured finger sidelining Allen indefinitely, Mobley is more important than ever as Cleveland looks to get back to the playoffs without LeBron for the first time since 1998.
As one of a trio of big men for Cleveland, along with Allen and Markkanen, Mobley has made his biggest mark on defense, helping the Cavs to a No. 4 ranking in defensive efficiency (106.8).1 When Cleveland’s collection of bigs share the court, its defense allows 102 points per 100 possessions, but that figure climbs to 110.3 when Allen and Markkanen play without Mobley, per NBA Advanced Stats — and its net rating drops by 7.9 points.
With his 7-foot-4 wingspan, Mobley has played a big part in Cleveland’s 1,221 contested shots in the restricted area; the Cavs rank seventh this year after finishing no higher than 13th in each of the previous three seasons.
Mobley ranks fifth in that category among all players, using his long arms and timely jumps to alienate opponents from the rim. And he has contested 88 more such shot attempts than any other rookie so far this season.
Mobley’s comfort away from the rim has been another advantage for Cleveland this season. The 20-year-old also leads all 7-footers with 453 closeouts (15th in the league), which speaks to his length, timing and agility. Those gifts make it nearly impossible for shooters to find clean looks at the basket — near or far.
Here is Mobley, in a closely contested January game against the Memphis Grizzlies, running across the court to stifle a Desmond Bane 3-point attempt. The rookie’s ability to cover so much ground allows Cleveland’s other defenders to play more to their strengths and with more room for error.
His instinctive effort muddled an open catch-and-shoot opportunity and paved the way for a Memphis turnover.
It’s rare for a first-year player to impact a franchise’s defense so quickly. Mobley’s play has stoked conversations about him as an All-Defensive Team candidate; if he were to get the nod, he would be the first rookie on the team since Tim Duncan in 1997-98.
Such flashes have reminded Love, who is in his 14th NBA season, of Kevin Garnett’s days wreaking havoc on offenses. A big man with a penchant for switching across the court is a fine luxury in an era of small-ball lineups tasked with using space to their advantage. Fortunately for Cleveland, Mobley’s versatility allows teammates to react to an offense’s every move while trusting his instincts to compensate for mistakes.
“Sometimes, when we go zone, or if we’re switching 3 through 5 or 2 through 5, he ends up at the top of the key,” Love recently said of Mobley, who is tied for the team lead in shots contested from that location with Okoro. “You used to see that a lot, at the very least, when KG was on the Timberwolves. You would always see him kind of at the top there, showing length, contesting guards, sometimes guarding the 3-man, sometimes guarding the 2-man.”
Though Mobley is already comfortable inside and out on defense, most of his best work on offense has been done near the basket.
He leads all rookies with 124 dunks (ninth in the league) and 45 of the heavily contested variety (sixth). The pairing of Mobley and Allen, who is second in the league in total dunks, is why Cleveland has leapt to third among all teams after ranking no higher than 10th in each of the previous three seasons.
When he isn’t finishing through defenders, Mobley has proven adept at finishing over their outstretched arms as well. He’s displayed impressive touch and footwork from the post: He’s tied for seventh in the league in total makes from that spot (with a rookie-high 48).
Here is Mobley caught under the basket while being guarded by Rudy Gobert. He’s able to reverse his dribble while using his length, touch and quickness to shoot over the outstretched arms of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Another one of Mobley’s many remarkable gifts lies within his passing ability. Since Ricky Rubio tore his ACL in December, Mobley has become more of a focal point in Cleveland’s offense. He leads the team with in total touches (1,902) and passes (1,361) while trailing only Garland in potential assists over that span with 176.
Mobley’s average touch length on offense is roughly two seconds, placing him alongside such players as Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns. His size, skill and penchant for keeping the ball moving has helped the Cavaliers jump to eighth in wide-open jumpers attempted after ranking 26th in 2020-21.
Mobley has proved quite comfortable with attacking closeouts without rushing himself to the rim, allowing him to scan the floor for open teammates. In a recent matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, Mobley draws a double team from Georges Niang and Joel Embiid, freeing up Allen to distract Shake Milton underneath the rim as Cedi Osman wiggles free for a clean look.
That is one of many examples of Mobley growing more comfortable as a playmaker. He has assisted on 27 wide-open 3-pointers since Rubio’s knee injury, trailing only Josh Giddey, Jalen Suggs and Cade Cunningham among rookies in that span, offering a glimpse of what could come in the future as he grows more into his own as a pro.
His many talents have been an invaluable glue for Cleveland’s playoff run. Among the team’s 10 players to log at least 500 minutes this season, Mobley, Markkanen and Rubio are the only Cavaliers who weren’t on the team a year ago. It is hard to overstate Mobley’s impact on Cleveland’s return to playoff form, given the gaps he’s filled.
Fortunately for Cleveland, Love believes his young teammate’s contributions have proven most vital among a deep class of promising and productive rookies.
“Listen, the growth has been fast for him,” Love said of Mobley’s potential. “It’s also very hard as a rookie to do it on a winning team. So I think accounting for all of that, it makes for a pretty special season for him. … I think it’s a no-brainer, if he continues this, he’s gonna be the Rookie of the Year.”
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