clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Evan Mobley season review: A star in progress

Mobley’s flashes are bright but there is still work to do.

New York Knicks v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Evan Mobley learned how to solve a Rubik’s Cube almost as fast as he made the leap from rookie to defensive savant, becoming the second youngest NBA player to earn First-Team All-Defense honors this past season.

Package his jaw-dropping defensive game with a budding offensive skill set and Mobley has the makings of a future superstar. But just how far down the line is this stardom? Mobley’s sophomore season was full of flashes, yet it’s clear he is still a work in progress. What steps did Mobley take in year two and what else must he do to become the face of the franchise?

Already a defensive star

If there is one thing Evan Mobley can hang his hat on, it’s defense. He was drafted as a future Defensive Player of the Year-level prospect. In only two seasons he has made good on that promise, becoming one of the league’s premiere defenders.

He had dipped his toes into being a show-stopper during his rookie season, but Mobley took a full cannonball into being the ultimate deterrent as a sophomore. He led the entire NBA this season in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 10.05 compared to his rookie rating of 6.28 (7th in the NBA). His D-LEBRON rating improved as well, jumping to 3.08 (4th) from 2.40 (9th).

If you prefer something tangible rather than another confusing acronym to estimate defensive impact — the film tells the full story. Mobley spared no mercy when generating highlights this season.

His miraculous snatch blocks have become commonplace and switching onto the perimeter to lockdown 20+ point per game scorers is just another day in the office, at this point.

A seven-footer being the team’s best perimeter defender is rare. But Mobley ranked in the 83rd percentile as an isolation defender and held opponents to a paltry 0.76 points per possession on these plays.

Versatility is the key to Mobley’s success. He can keep opponents at bay from anywhere on the floor with his length and athleticism. His 9’0” standing reach allows him to sit on Jamal Murray’s potential drive and still spring out to smother his jumper on this iso attempt:

And on this play, Mobley plugs the pick-and-roll before stepping up to block Murray’s shot:

A full year of experience under his belt made Mobley a blackhole defensively. He was able to position himself much better as a sophomore, oftentimes derailing an entire possession all on his own.

Watch as Mobley takes away all options from New Orleans as they attempt to play a two-man game with Jose Alverado and Jonas Valanciunas.

Mobley is a master of contesting without fouling. He committed nine fewer fouls than Jaren Jackson Jr despite Mobley playing nearly 1,000 more minutes than the DPOY.

Here, he parks himself in the paint to deter a shot attempt from Tyrese Haliburton then erases Buddy Hield’s drive a few moments later — all without a shred of doubt that no foul was committed:

Racking up multiple stops became typical for the 21-year-old. While some players build momentum by making shots, Mobley energizes himself by blocking them. In perhaps his most impressive quarter of the season, Mobley recorded four blocks in five minutes versus Utah.

And as he continues to fill out his frame with muscle, we’ll see him do more stuff like this: stalemating Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim to force a jump ball.

Even in the playoffs, where Mobley and the Cavs struggled most, his defense was superb. Mobley held the New York Knicks to just 27.6% shooting in isolation and forced an 8.4% dip in field goal percentage when contesting their shots.

Julius Randle shot 11-43 (25.6%) with Mobely defending him in round one. While Mobley was equally bad on offense, he ensured Randle was never able to find a comfortable rhythm either.

All this to say, Mobley was really tough to score on this season. He polished his craft in year two, becoming the quintessential help defender and a force at the point of attack. He finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting and it’s only a matter of time before he outright claims the trophy.

Room for growth offensively

Developing Evan Mobley’s offensive game has been a unique challenge for Cleveland. The roster is built around two dynamic, ball-dominant guards — not Mobley. As a result, he posted just a 19.9% Usage Rate this season. For comparison, Anthony Davis had a Usage of 25% during his sophomore season as the focal point of New Orleans’ rebuild.

On a different team, he would be receiving far more reps with the ball. But in Cleveland, Mobley’s offensive development has been on the back burner. He shares the frontcourt with another non-shooting big and is surrounded by non-shooting role players. His options for scoring mostly come in the form of playing off-ball in the dunker’s spot or rolling to the hoop. There isn’t much individual shot creation going on for Mobley at this stage of his career.

This made the playoffs exceptionally challenging for Mobely as both Cleveland’s roster construction and his personal weaknesses came to bite him. He looked uncomfortable matched up against equally athletic and significantly stronger opponents in Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.

In a series where Cleveland only managed to score 100 points once, Mobley’s inability to create a shot was just another blemish on the offense. Here, his futile attempt to take Robinson off the dribble results in a jump ball.

Mobley’s bag of tricks is shallow and he has not developed any counters for when an opponent can match his athleticism. He shot just 45.8% in the playoffs, almost 10% worse than he did in the regular season. In this play, it’s clear Mobley is operating with no clear plan — rushing into an awkward fadeaway over Randle after the initial shot is deterred by Robinson.

As with the defensive end, adding muscle will only help. If he does not improve his handle (which he absolutely should aim to do), it is possible Mobley can one day power himself to the basket similar to other elite bigs such as Antetokounmpo and Davis. For now, even backup bigs are capable of giving him trouble in the paint:

Yet, the biggest gap in Mobley’s offensive game continues to be his lack of a consistent jumper. He was a 25% three-point shooter as a rookie and took a step backward to 21.6% in his sophomore stint. Of all the NBA players to attempt at least 100 threes this season, Mobley ranked dead last in efficiency.

Cleveland’s path to a title becomes narrow if Mobley fails to establish himself as any sort of threat outside of the paint. At the moment, he is hardly even a threat from mid-range, shooting below 40% on these attempts. Expanding his range is all but necessary to make a leap.

A dominant finisher

Scoring isn’t all doom and gloom for Mobley, however. He shot the league’s highest percentage (77.7%) in the restricted area and the ninth-best field goal percentage (59.5%) from within two-point range (minimum 800 total attempts). Nearly 90% of these attempts were assisted, showcasing that Mobley has no problem finishing plays — though he doesn’t often create his own.

A rapid-fire post hook is one of Mobley’s developing skills. He can rise into this shot faster than most opponents can react. His career-high 38 points against Milwaukee was a shining example of this.

While it is vital Mobley finds other ways to score, his agility for a seven-footer was still enough to leave opponents in the dust. Here, he blows by Jrue Holiday to convert a dazzling attack on the basket.

Again, Mobley’s speed catches his defender by surprise as he drives from the three-point line then fully extends his arms to finish over the leaping Obi Toppin.

There are shades of a dynamic scorer here. The improvements he made in year two, while subtle, showcase that something special might be brewing under the surface.

Improving the “little things”

Making a leap can often come down to improving on the margins. For Mobley, little things like setting solid screens and making the correct pass could be huge.

Mobley is capable of reading the floor on defense so it’s only natural this began to translate to his offense in year two. He averaged 2.8 assists per game, creating a unique two-man game with Jarrett Allen. In this play, the Cavaliers run a pick-and-roll with Mobley as the ball handler.

Using Mobley as a hub could open new opportunities for Cleveland. He does not have much room to spread his wings but has shown some strong playmaking instincts. For example, Mobley zips this pass to a spot where only Allen could catch it:

Continued growth as a passer would go a long way for Mobley. Here, he uses a ball fake to dispatch Kevin Porter Jr. (weakside defender) away from Allen, before driving into the paint and tossing an overhead alley-oop.

There are factors that hold Mobley back as a playmaker. His handle is still a bit loose and he’s at his best when he’s passing on the short roll, which becomes difficult if Cleveland doesn’t have proper spacing around him. Note the spacing on the previous plays and then watch this possession from the playoffs, where New York leaves the corner to take away the dump-off pass:

Cleveland can unlock Mobley’s playmaking potential with a better-supporting cast. Yet, Mobley’s biggest flaw is setting poor screens. He ranked in the 22nd percentile as a pick-and-roll man during his rookie season and the 45th percentile as a sophomore. This just doesn’t add up for a player of his length, athleticism and efficiency at the basket. The only explanation is the most obvious, Mobley is a bad screener.

Take this possession from the playoffs, where Mobley brushes Josh Hart rather than sealing him. A proper screen may have freed Mitchell for a jumper or opened a path for Mobley to roll. Instead, it’s a contested step-back shot.

Gaining muscle is a good place to start. But, Mobley is primarily screening guards, something he is currently strong enough to do — yet doesn’t. This is largely because of Mobley’s tendency to slip screens.

Slipping the screen can be an effective tool for a player as athletic and agile as Mobley. Take this play, where he dices off-ball for an alley-oop slam before the defense can react.

The dilemma is figuring out when to slip and when to actually set a firm screen. In the playoffs, Mobley’s habit of slipping screens harmed Cleveland’s offense. Look at this example, where Darius Garland is unable to create any separation due to Mobley’s touch-and-go screen.

Delivering a proper, bone-crushing screen would not only grease Cleveland’s wheels offensively but likely make scoring easier for Mobley, himself. Even without a developed jumper or fluid handle, Mobley could increase his scoring output by becoming a better screener.


The Cavaliers know what they have on the defensive end, a jack-of-all-trades who can lead the league’s best defense. Yet Mobley remains a mystery bag on offense. He has no clear ceiling as his limitations all seem like things he could overcome. Gaining muscle, tightening his handle, setting proper screens and developing a more consistent jumper are all things a 21-year-old prospect can realistically aspire to do.

The rough sketch of superstardom is there for Mobley. Refining the details and asserting himself as a threat on offense is the key. Year two was a step in the right direction but plenty more leaps will have to come before Mobley’s potential is fully realized.