Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley scored an efficient 22 points in a loss Tuesday night to the New Orleans Pelicans. I will admit that a loss to the NBA’s fourth- or fifth-worst team is not the sturdiest springboard for a blog of appreciation, but the NBA is in shambles right now due to an omicron outbreak, the final score of a given December game is even more meaningless than usual, and frankly it is past time that I bring my growing awe and admiration for Mobley to the blog format. Besides, Mobley played well and is not at all even a small part why the Cavs lost. He is insanely good at basketball, not just for a rookie but for a human being.
Mobley’s efficiency doesn’t yet leap off the page, but here it is important to note that he is 20 years old and a rookie and has all the ripped muscle of a No. 2 pencil, and that the Cavaliers have a strange, idiosyncratic roster and a dearth of ball-handlers, and relatively green head coach and a new offense. Numbers, for now, can be awfully misleading, especially when what you see when you watch him is an enormously skilled player with the polish and presence of a much, much older dude. What is most striking about Mobley is how comfortably he moves for a near-seven-footer, and how eagerly he leverages his slight frame at both ends, as if he has not yet been told that most NBA players anywhere close to him in height outweigh him by a solid 15 pounds.
Brian Windhorst published a story Tuesday afternoon about the radical thinking that led to Cleveland’s unexpected success with by far the NBA’s hugest lineups. Much of it was the normal, healthy work of making something lemonade-like out of a roster that, at least according to recent NBA trends, was a bit of a lemon. Kevin Love was the 33-year-old, $31 million immovable object. Jarrett Allen was the prize from a recent, complicated four-team swap that saw the Cavs send out a couple picks. The best the Cavs could do in a trade meant to make them younger and improve their shooting was to acquire seven-foot Lauri Markkanen. The third overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, an undeniable windfall, nevertheless left the Cavs to take the last guy in what was then considered a three-player draft. That third guy, Mobley, is to every other team in the NBA a center. In a Cavs rotation needing to carve out roles for no fewer than four centers, Mobley would have to play down one or even two positions, something that has become basically unthinkable for a functional NBA team.
To say that Mobley and the Cavs are making it work would be an understatement. Mobley and Allen—just to be clear, these are two centers—have shared the court for a healthy 518 minutes so far this season, and produced an eye-popping 8.3 net rating powered by an even more eye-popping 95.9 defensive rating. That unlikely pairing works extraordinarily well largely because Mobley is an almost impossibly good individual and team defender. He leads his very good team in defensive rating. Basketball Reference and FiveThirtyEight and the NBA’s quirky but official-seeming advanced stats all say he is among the most disruptive defensive players around, and he’s playing out of position, and the Cavs are no worse than the second-best defensive team in the league. You cannot hear this but I am taking a large breath before typing these words: Mobley, still scrawny as hell and still learning the tendencies of the guys he’s lining up against, is very possibly one of the two or three best defenders in basketball.
Mobley has the Draymond Green-esque ability to credibly defend every position for whole possessions at a time. This is cool and rare and extraordinarily valuable. P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo, Kevin Durant, and several other guys can also credibly defend every position, but almost no one in basketball has the additional quality of appearing at all times to be personally snuffing out all hopes the other team might have of generating good shots. Anthony Davis can do it but almost never does. Joel Embiid is basically never healthy enough to do it for more than a few possessions at a time. Few players ever can pull it off nightly, because it takes a freakish level of focus and exertion combined with superhuman reflexes and/or physical dimensions. Green and Rudy Gobert might be the only two players in basketball who routinely enter into this all-devouring state, where it seems simply impossible in a 24-second possession for the opposing offense to drag them far enough away from the action that they won’t disrupt everything. Mobley does this more in the Green mold—by switching onto everyone, defending the point of attack, and swooping in from distant help positions to snuff out developing opportunities—but mostly because Cleveland’s rotation requires that he never really have extended opportunities to do the Gobert thing of hanging in the paint, dropping away from high screens, and contesting everything around the rim. Mobley is currently sixth in the NBA in blocks per game, but there is for sure a universe where he is primarily a center and in that universe he leads the damn NBA in rejections.
It seems wild and possibly even galling to mention a 20-year-old rookie alongside those two, but here we are. Mobley is a genuinely incredible, perhaps generational team defender. You don’t really expect a guy to have a defensive highlight reel less than halfway into his first NBA season, because for the most part rookies suck shit at defending in the pros. Adjustments to the speed of the game, the vastly elevated talent level, the sophistication of the opposing offenses, and the rookie’s own relative physical immaturity generally make it impossible for a brand new player to be even a particularly stout individual defender, let alone a terrifying wrecker of whole opposing game plans.
If mentioning Mobley with Green and Gobert strikes you as hasty, mentioning him with Tim Duncan must seem like actual blasphemy. I remember when Duncan entered the NBA, basketball was still a sport that conceived of any even marginally skilled center as automatically the fulcrum of a half-court offense. This afforded Duncan opportunities that Mobley simply will never enjoy in the modern era. Duncan’s post game was so mature, and his box score productivity was so consistent, the easiest way to sort of sum him up was as a Franchise Big Man. In retrospect I think Duncan’s offensive polish and the Twin Towers thing with David Robinson may have distracted somewhat from the incredible work Duncan did right off the bat as a defender. Still I think most people who saw him play back then will agree that there has not been another rookie defender of his caliber in the almost 25 years since.
I am not necessarily prepared to say that Mobley is a Duncan-esque defensive force! Nevertheless I invite you to consider the following: First, in the early part of Duncan’s career, defensive switches and positional mismatches were rare and considered emergencies, and three-point shooting volume was quite literally less than half of what it is today, and so whether or not Duncan could individually defend five positions way out on the floor mattered somewhat less than the fact that he virtually never had to. Second, Duncan was a ripe and seasoned four-year college player when he entered the pros, with a much more mature body and much more high-level basketball experience. Evan Mobley played one year of college basketball and three total NCAA tournament games. Surviving and thriving defensively, minute-to-minute, as a big man in the modern game is simply harder now than it was 25 years ago, and Mobley has far less training for the job, and still he is gobbling up whole opposing offenses.
And then there is his offense, which if you squint just a tiny bit is basically early career Chris Bosh with a crossover and a 23-foot pull-up. This skill set, still in the refinement phase, would’ve made him a Kevin Garnett-like monster in an earlier era. Nowadays it remains to be seen if the package contains all of what is required to be an alpha-scorer type:
Backing out with a live dribble in order to set up a smooth right-to-left crossover, flowing into a spin move, and then a deft little jump hook over a decent contest? Then on the very next possession jogging into a fluid catch-and-shoot transition three-pointer? Forgive me, basketball gods, but: Tim Duncan would absolutely never.
In this blog I have compared Evan Mobley to Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Garnett. I don’t care! So much of the condition of this NBA regular season at this moment makes me want to puke. It’s no one’s fault, exactly, but this has turned into a real drag. I advise all NBA fans to escape this misery, even if only for a night: At the very next opportunity, dial up a Cavs game and watch Mobley do his thing. The pieces are in place for a rare and remarkable NBA player, the likes of which the NBA has not churned out in a very long time. Dream big. Blaspheme!