How Evan Mobley is blossoming into more than just a defensive star

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley plays against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

When the Cavaliers traveled to Salt Lake City on Jan. 10, most of the NBA-watching world focused on the moment’s clearest narrative: Donovan Mitchell’s first game back in Utah since being traded for a king’s ransom. But after a nip-and-tuck affair that saw the plucky Jazz come away with the win despite Mitchell hanging 46 on his old mates, ESPN commentator Kendrick Perkins focused not on that return, but on an arrival — or, rather, one he felt hadn’t happened yet.

Where in the hell is Evan Mobley? On the surface, it seemed like a fair question. With your superstar balling out and without much complementary offense elsewhere, you might like to see your Rookie of the Year runner-up pick up a bit more of the scoring slack. Instead, Mobley chipped in a quiet 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting — muted production that mostly mirrored what the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft had mustered through the first half of the season.

Dig a little bit, though, and you begin to see that “muted production” in a broader context. Mobley’s frontcourt partner, Jarrett Allen, was sick and left the game after just six minutes. That meant Mobley had to shift over to center, where he was responsible for getting Mitchell and Darius Garland loose in the pick-and-roll (he set 30 ball screens, according to Second Spectrum, eight more than his season average), springing Cleveland’s shooters free away from the action (22 off-ball screens, seven more than usual) and serving as the connective tissue keeping the ball moving from one side of the floor to the other (he threw more passes than any Cav but Garland).

That’s just on offense. On the other end of the court, Mobley had to fight to keep breakout rookie Walker Kessler off the offensive glass and stretch out to the arc to pull shifts on the perimeter players weaponized by coach Will Hardy’s five-out motion attack. That Jazz offense, which ranks third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scored at its season average in the 11 minutes Mobley was off the floor. It scored 2.4 points per 100 possessions below that average in Mobley’s 37 minutes … during which he blocked four shots, notched three deflections, snagged a steal and held Utah to 6-of-13 shooting on attempts he contested. (The Jazz went 12-of-17 against every other Cav.)

That’s one game, but it’s instructive — an object lesson in how Mobley’s impact can show up all over the place, even if it’s not clear in the most obvious columns on the stat sheet.

“A lot of development [for top picks] is opportunity,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters last month. “When you get drafted as high as those guys do, you’re typically on a team that’s in development mode and your best players are the ones that are going to get the most amount of reps, the guys with the most potential.”

That hasn’t been the case for Mobley. He joined a roster that featured three players who’d go on to earn All-Star berths (Garland, Allen and Lauri Markkanen) alongside a number of other established offensive players (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Collin Sexton, Caris LeVert, Cedi Osman). He had to get in where he fit in on a Cavaliers team that shocked many observers by vying for the top spot in the Eastern Conference before a number of injuries dropped them into the play-in tournament.

Trading Markkanen and Sexton didn’t create an offensive void for Mobley to fill, either, because the deal brought back Mitchell — a legit No. 1 option who’s finished in the top 10 in the NBA in usage rate in three of the last four seasons. Among players to make at least 15 appearances and average at least 15 minutes per game, Mobley ranks 71st in the NBA in touches per game; he’s shooting less than he did as a rookie.

It hasn’t seemed to rankle Mobley, though. Maybe that’s because the recipe seems to work: The Cavs boast a top-10 offense and the league’s second-best point differential. They’re on a seven-game winning streak, sitting at 38-22 overall, just a game behind the 76ers for third place in the East heading into Wednesday night’s showdown.

“Some guys have to be ‘the guy,’ ” Mobley recently told reporters. “I don’t necessarily have to be ‘the guy’ on this team.”

Even so: Those around the Cavs have continued to suggest that Mobley’s closer to being “the guy” than you might think.

“There's a version of Evan that is going to dominate this league,” Bickerstaff has said. “We've seen it, I think, consistently in defensive moments, but there's an offensive version of that as well, and I think it's coming.”

Mobley’s defensive bona fides, at this point, are just about bulletproof. He’s eighth in the NBA in blocks per game and adds about three combined steals and deflections per 36 minutes of floor time. He’s seventh in shots contested per game and fourth in contested 3-pointers, using his elite combination of length and agility to excel at the rubber-band role of snapping inside to protect the rim before stretching back out to guard the perimeter. The Cavs allow 110.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions when Mobley and Allen team up to man the interior, a top-five mark; with Mobley at the 5 and Allen off the floor, they’ve allowed a microscopic 105.7 points-per-100. (Bickerstaff has also been sticking Mobley on top perimeter scorers more recently — against DeMar DeRozan vs. Chicago, Brandon Ingram vs. New Orleans, and Jimmy Butler vs. Miami — which could be a preview of how Cleveland might line up in the postseason against teams with the kind of big-wing playmakers who might be too big for Isaac Okoro and too fast for Dean Wade.)

The offensive leap is what Perk and so many others are waiting for, though … and, well, it might be starting:

With Mitchell limited of late by a groin injury and his shot cooling off — well, before the last week, at least — Cleveland has needed another source of high-efficiency offense, and Mobley has stepped up. Since that loss to Utah, he’s averaging 18.8 points per game on 55.7% shooting, with a usage rate nearly 5% higher than it was over the first half of the season; his scoring efficiency from the elbows and in the paint are way up from earlier in the year, too.

Mobley hasn’t yet developed consistent comfort with or range on his jumper; only about 14% of his shots this season have come from beyond 14 feet, according to Cleaning the Glass, and he’s shooting just 30% outside the paint. But just because he hasn’t followed the most obvious path to leveling up offensively, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t gotten better or that Cleveland can’t run more offense through him.

Over the last month, Mobley has continued to hunt open spaces in the defense and feast on his bread-and-butter looks: the high-low feeds from Allen when he’s rolling to the rim and Mobley’s cutting baseline out of the corner, and the dump-off passes from Garland and Mitchell when he’s lurking in the dunker spot or diving in the pick-and-roll. But he’s also showcasing a wider array of ways to get buckets.

He’s splashing floaters on the short roll and attacking out of the triple threat with aggressive drives to the rim. He’s grabbing the ball off the rim and going coast-to-coast, shedding defenders with Eurosteps and full-speed spin moves off the bounce. He’s making a more concerted effort to attack smaller opponents when defenses switch guards onto him. When he gets deep in the paint, he’s using the patience and timing that makes him a great rim protector against his counterparts, deploying a variety of head and shoulder fakes to get shot-blockers into the air and clear the path to the cup.

The reedy 215-pound Mobley can’t yet muscle through a lot of NBA defenders; during Monday’s win over the Spurs, he struggled at times to create separation from the burlier Charles Bassey. But while more physical defenders can still push him off his spot or get him off-balance as he rises up, Mobley has looked more comfortable of late using his 7-foot-4 wingspan to counter that physicality by elevating over the top with soft-touch half-hooks and turnaround jumpers — the kinds of shots that he can get off over the outstretched arms of shot-blockers with his high release point, enabling him to continue to be effective in the lane even if he can’t bulldoze his way to the rim.

A more diverse menu of options for how to put the ball in the hole has paid dividends: Mobley is shooting 66.1% inside of eight feet and 83% in the restricted area over his last 18 games. That good work has been rewarded with more work: After taking 15 or more shots just 19 times in his first 112 professional outings, Mobley has now done it seven times in his last 15.

“Whenever he has a mismatch, I want him to tell me to get him the ball,” Garland told reporters last month, after Mobley scored a career-high 38 points on 19-for-27 shooting in a win over Milwaukee. “I want him to get a little bit angrier when he doesn’t get it. When he doesn’t get like 15 attempts per night, at least. I want him to find himself just being more involved in our offense, because he does a lot for us on our defensive end, so we got to get him the ball on the offensive end.”

While it’d be something of a shock to see the perennially placid Mobley bark and mean-mug about not getting enough touches, he won’t have to if the Cavs continue to emphasize establishing him more early in games. Cleveland got the ball in Mobley’s hands on its first four possessions against San Antonio on Monday, putting him to work in the pick-and-roll, as a cutter, on the block, in transition and on a clear-out isolation; three minutes in, the Cavs had an eight-point lead they’d never relinquish.

Mobley’s hot start didn’t presage a huge night; he’d finish with 15 points and nine boards while Mitchell exploded for 41 in the win. That commitment to involving him early and often, though — and to doing it in different areas of the court, in different ways, with different things to read and decisions to make — highlights how Bickerstaff and Co. keep looking to expand the sophomore’s skillset and foster his growth as a multifaceted playmaker. The injury-plagued Cavs saw their offense peter out late last season, including in play-in losses to Brooklyn and Atlanta, in large part because they didn’t have an answer for opponents trapping the ball out of Garland’s hands. The addition of Mitchell is supposed to be the antidote for that; a version of Mobley that’s more confident in his ability to make stuff happen off the bounce, more aggressive in attacking 4-on-3 after the guards get off the ball, and more empowered to do so, can be one too.

If he can help solve those problems in the postseason crucible, the Cavs’ chances of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia improve considerably. If he can do that on offense while also kicking in 40 minutes of All-Defensive Team-caliber work across multiple positions — at age 21 — then any questions about just how meaningful his contributions really are might soon sound awfully silly.

“When we get to our best,” Bickerstaff said last month, “I believe Evan can be our most impactful player.”

He’s not there yet, but objects in the rearview mirror are often closer than they appear. The question was, “Where in the hell is Evan Mobley?” If he keeps this up, the answer will become obvious: he’s friggin’ everywhere.

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