While often depicted, lamented, and sanctified as liberating, hope can also be a virus. It can rot rationality from the inside. It can lead to danger, injury, and death. As Ellis Boyd Redding, best known by his friends and fellow convicts at Shawshank State Prison as Red, once said… “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Throughout the decades, NBA fans have seen it all too often. Memories of Chris Washburn, Kwame Brown, and Sam Bowie still haunt the hallowed halls of the franchises that selected them. In the modern era, Derrick Williams, Hasheem Thabeet, Greg Oden, and Anthony Bennett have become just as forgotten to neophyte fans born after the turn of the millenium. And yes, many of these names were snakebit by injury, or simply by being drafted by the wrong team. Yet, one slot above or below could have changed the entire fate of many a lottery pick.
Like former Knick Kevin Knox, others showed promise for a season before fading into obscurity. Some went as far as two or three, like Michael Beasley. All were selected on the fumes of hope. Hope was placed on these young players’ backs like a target, praying they would individually change the course of their respective team’s history. Turn bleakness bright, or make sorrow soar. Hope can be a hell of a drug.
Such dreams are only reserved for the sure thing. The NBA fan base at large, meaning worldwide, only dares utter the phrase for players like LeBron James, Zion Williamson, Lamelo Ball, Ja Morant, and currently, Victor Wembanyama. Before being drafted, none of Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, or Giannis Antetokounmpo were sure bets. In the modern era, perhaps no team has had more lottery luck than the Cleveland Cavaliers. First, LeBron James. Then Kyrie Irving. Yea, the Cavs squandered that Bennett pick, but they also drafted, then flipped Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. In last year’s draft, the Cavs once again got lucky and drafted a player worthy of the gamble on hope. His name is Evan Mobley.
At just 20 years old, Mobley delivered a dominant rookie year for the Cavs at seven feet tall with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. It all began in high school when Mobley won California Player of the Year as a junior and senior. He averaged 18 ppg and 2.7 blocks as a senior, making him a top-three national recruit, going as high as No. 1 in ESPN’s rankings. After choosing USC, he delivered prodigy-like numbers of 16.4 ppg and 2.9 bpg, earning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year. The last collegiate player to hit those high standards? Kentucky’s Anthony Davis — a champion and newly minted Top 75 Player of all-time.
When Mobley was being interviewed on draft night, he was asked what skill he would bring to the NBA as a rookie. His answer was simple, yet rare for a projected top-three pick — defense. Most eager rookies cite their off-the-dribble offense, IQ, leadership, or DAWG mentality when asked. But Mobley is not like other highly/touted prospects. He moves quietly, and subtly, but when he plays, he smacks you in the mouth, metaphorically speaking of course. Sound familiar? Tim Duncan was the same. Mobley is unique in his ability to switch on all five positions. He has the lateral footwork to stay with attacking guards, the wing space to sag off drives and close out on shooters, and the balance to recover on high-octane guards with the ball on a string. His ability to outjump driving bigs, simply off of standing two feet, puts him in elite company. The last rookie to do this? Duncan in 1998. Most rim-protection bigs can only meet their opponent mid-air with a running start. Mobley can stay grounded, avoiding fouls, flowing like water to whoever has the ball before slapping the rock into the stands off a jump.
It was no surprise when he went third overall last summer to Cleveland. After breaking up the LeBron James-led championship roster, the Cavs overcame the usual decade-long period of depravity. But losing LeBron to free agency in 2018 put them right back amid lottery luck, landing Collin Sexton with the 8th pick in 2018 (who would be used this summer in a trade to land Donovan Mitchell), current All-Star Darius Garland with the 5th pick in 2019, and taking elite perimeter defender Issac Okorro with the 5th pick in the 2020 Draft. They also acquired Jarrett Allen in a trade two seasons ago, who blossomed into an All-Star last year. So when they selected Mobley, he entered a stable situation that allowed him to utilize his elite defensive instincts right off the bat, while having the grace not to be an immediate savior.
In year one of their pairing, Mobley and Allen developed into one of the elite defensive frontcourt duos in the NBA, becoming essential to the Cavaliers’ return to the playoffs. He cemented his rookie season averaging: 15 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, and 1.7 BPG on 51 percent shooting. This earned Mobley First-Team All-Rookie honors. His blocks per game average tied him for the fifth-highest in the league, and his 115 blocks were good enough for eighth best. As a rookie, his defensive rating of 107.3 placed him in the Top 20 players in the league. Even more impressive, it was the highest placement for a rookie in defensive ratings since LeBron ranked seventh in 2003. So, about that hope, it’s obvious Mobley was one of the rare immediate-impact rookies. But can he be more? Can he achieve greatness in a city that has only had it once with LeBron?
To find out, let’s return to Duncan, who Mobley mirrors as a willing and skilled passer. Mobley is a deadly short-roll passer while equally capable of quick-thinking give-and-go, which made for an easy high/low game with teammate Allen. He anticipates reads better than most bigs but will need to tighten his handle and gather on drives to unlock another level. He’s already comfortable utilizing his size, but needs to sharpen his on-ball/off-ball scoring. Once he does, he will become unstoppable. The Cavs are full of ball-dominant guards, but Mobley will need chances to have the ball in his hands to take advantage of his passing and intermediate game. Adjustments will need to happen this season, but all the pieces are there for Mobley to become the best player on a team with three other All-Stars.
Mobley is an anomaly because he’s barely stretching the surface of his talent. So much of what he has been able to accomplish defensively is on his rare combination of athleticism and instinct. But much of his offensive game is still raw. In college, the knock was his 30 percent shooting from 3-point range. He was even worse his rookie year, averaging a paltry 25 percent. He hasn’t been much better inside the arc, hitting 33 percent of shots outside of 15 feet. He shot 41.2 percent on short mid-range jumpers, counting anything between the restricted area and inside the free-throw line.
His true shooting percentage of 54.9 was two points below the league average of 56.6. Once he speeds up his release off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot opportunities, he will improve. The Cavs employed a ton of double-drag screens last season, where Mobley worked out of the high post in dribble-handoff scenarios. He needs to work on popping out of those screens and drilling 3s when he’s involved in that kind of action. He has a lot to work on offensively, but his size and passing skills give him a great floor to build upon. In his first season, he developed a fadeaway from the elbow, a right-handed hook shot, and the upper-body width to bang in the paint while jockeying for position. While he lacks the bulk to get what he wants down low, he gets by with body control and a soft touch around the rim.
When it comes to how he plays with his fellow starters, he’s honed an excellent two-man game with Garland last season in the pick-and-roll, showing off a forward push shot as the roll man. Playing next to an elite rim-protector in Allen gives Mobley the freedom to move around the court in a switching defense, using his length to disrupt passing lanes and providing weak-side coverage, like Draymond Green has done for a decade with the Warriors. The real unlocking of Mobley’s game will be when he’s slotted in at center. Last season, he averaged 25 percent of his minutes at the five, where he was surrounded by spacing, which should only be better this year after adding the elite play of Mitchell. Playing next to high-end guard play will give him opportunities to unlock his secondary playmaker abilities.
For anyone who loves watching a ball go through the hoop in the most elegant way possible, hope keeps us watching, even when it’s false hope. It’s also why we contextualize would-be generational ball players as our raison d’être, even when it’s a mirage. Where others possessed one or two unique sensibilities, Mobley is an enigma. Where other prospects failed at fulfilling the auspice of hope, Mobley embodies it as flesh and bone. And as Red’s good friend Andy Dufresne put it… “hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”