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Sport: Evan Mobley Is Doing Impossible Things As a Rookie

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The No. 3 overall pick has been the best player in this class so far and has Cleveland thinking big.

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It’s probably not quite accurate to label Evan Mobley as a revelation for the Cavaliers. But it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling that way. If you watched Mobley play at USC last season, you understand why he was the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, and if you watched closely, it was clear just how unique his versatility and defensive ability could make him in the pros. If you didn’t do either of those things—and especially if you’re a Cavs fan, or just a fan of aesthetically interesting basketball—then you might have a new favorite player.

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Mobley is currently headlining an exceptional rookie class that is already making a good impression. It feels unusually safe to say that this is potentially one of the best classes ever. We’re not quite at the 10-game threshold yet where we can slap an arbitrary sample size on anything, but the good vibes are everywhere. Lottery picks Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner and Chris Duarte have been outstanding, and Jalen Green, Josh Giddey, Jalen Suggs and Davion Mitchell are showing flashes of their potential. Cade Cunningham and Jonathan Kuminga haven’t had a chance to get comfortable yet due to injury, but it’s been exciting to watch the class live up to its hype overall so far.

Still, as I’ve perused the early-season landscape the past couple of weeks, the rookie I keep coming back to is Mobley, who has been at the heart of Cleveland’s somewhat unexpected, highly respectable and surprisingly watchable 4–4 start. The Cavs have played six of their first eight games on the road and beaten the Hawks, Nuggets, Clippers and Hornets. Mobley has three double doubles and is averaging 13.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals entering Wednesday.

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Cleveland was in a situation that felt somewhat unsalvageable on paper entering the season, with a collection of players at varying stages of their careers; the roster didn’t quite make sense together. It turns out, the additions of Mobley, Lauri Markkanen and a rejuvenated Ricky Rubio have been enough to inch the Cavs toward relevance in an improved Eastern Conference.

The Cavs are sitting at .500, so let’s not pretend this is a league-shaking development or anything, but it’s extremely noteworthy that Mobley has more or less engineered the impossible. He’s a 7-footer linking together disparate lineups that generally feature a nonshooting, offensively limited center (Jarrett Allen), a second perimeter-oriented big who doesn’t create efficient shots for himself or others (Markkanen), a shoot-first, shoot-second undersized guard (Collin Sexton) and a second shoot-first undersized guard still figuring out his identity as a player (Darius Garland). Off the bench, the Cavs have Rubio, an aging Kevin Love, a nonshooting, defensive-minded wing (Isaac Okoro), a mercurial, motor-centric forward (Cedi Osman) and whatever they can get from Dean Wade.

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It’s a helter-skelter roster and probably not a playoff team, but the connective thread is Mobley’s versatility, which is already paying dividends. He’s accomplishing this with his aptitude for positioning on offense and defense; nimble feet that allow him to switch on the perimeter; the basic threat of his potentially making jumpers; passing ability that showed signs of really blossoming in college; and, of course, insane length. He enables and facilitates high-low combinations with his passing ability and is a constant threat to catch the ball around the rim and finish. I don’t know what will happen when opposing defenses inevitably start helping all the way off Mobley, who often floats to the wings and corners out of necessity to accommodate the massive Allen, but I do know that the only other big in the NBA right now who can do all this stuff on both ends is Anthony Davis, and he didn’t walk into the league with any semblance of Mobley’s offensive skill set.

It’s near-impossible to play three-big lineups in the modern NBA, and it’s suboptimal in the long run, even with Markkanen turning in improved defensive effort, but the Cavs are kind of pulling it off. Mobley can step outside to leave room for Allen, contest shots all over the floor to help catch what Markkanen and the guards miss, and provide adequate cover for Love, who hasn’t been all that bad, either. Per NBA.com’s tracking data, Mobley has contested a league-high 129 shots through eight games—29 more than the next-best, Spurs center Jakob Poeltl—and leads the league in contested twos and contested threes. It’s difficult enough to build a good defensive team when Garland and Sexton share the floor regularly, but the Cavs have been a top-half team in defensive rating in the early going. Small sample size, yes, but it doesn’t feel like nothing.

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Entering the draft, I pegged Mobley as the 1B to Cade Cunningham’s 1A , and they sat 1–2 on our draft board all season. One of the (very nitpicky) concerns I kept coming back to with Mobley was that he may not be truly suited as an offensive focal point. Having scouted him since he was a sophomore in high school, there was reasonable concern that he’s not wired to hunt shots for himself and not built in a way where he’s going to use physical heft to create mismatches, relying instead on his length, skill and sense of timing to open up lobs and finish over and around smaller defenders. He could simultaneously be extremely active yet quietly passive.

I still think that assessment was accurate, but after watching him hold his own so quickly, I’m not sure if it even matters. Mobley should eventually be able to be the best player on a playoff team, even if he’s not the guy you’re throwing the ball to in the clutch to go get a bucket. Mobley will have to become a better jump shooter and expand his offensive repertoire. He has a good skill base to do those things and room to add some physical strength along the way. But maybe what I missed conceptually was how special a connector Mobley can be, with his ability to pass, handle and make himself a target near the basket. Even when he isn’t directly involved in plays, he makes life easier for everyone else on the team at all times. In the long run, Cleveland may need to find an alternative frontcourt partner than Allen, who clogs some of the space Mobley needs to operate as a scorer in the paint. But the Cavaliers as constituted have already given us some proof of concept.

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It wasn’t a national travesty that Mobley fell to No. 3 in a strong draft, and it’s too soon to rag on the Pistons and Rockets for passing on him, but it’s fair to assume that he’s going to have a more immediate impact on winning over the course of this season than Cunningham and Green, who face steeper learning curves as perimeter players drawing heavy defensive attention. Early returns aren’t everything, but it’s certainly possible Mobley winds up being the best player to come out of this class. We can haggle about the value of centers in the modern game all we want, but it’s pretty clear he’s already starting to transcend that positional construct.

The Cavaliers will have some interesting decisions to make over the course of the season, depending on how sustainable their short-term success becomes—Sexton has been a trade candidate, and Rubio could certainly become one at the deadline—but Mobley’s immediate success undeniably changes the arc of their franchise moving forward. That’s a pretty nice spot to be in after eight games.

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