The transition from college to the professional game wasn’t smooth for Cleveland Cavaliers’ rookie Isaiah Mobley. His first exposure last Summer League showed the learning curb can be steep for traditional bigs.
“I just didn’t know how the game worked,” Mobley said when asked about his experience last July. “It’s just a different game. There’s a lot more space.”
A more spaced out game helps players with a wide array of natural skills, athleticism and feel for the game. At 6’8” and not as physically gifted as his brother Evan, Isaiah doesn’t possess the athleticism to be an instant impact player. This made Isaiah’s rookie season about learning how to adapt and refine his skills while also learning how the NBA game was played.
This led Isaiah to closely watching and patterning his after another 6’8” big in Kevin Love.
“He’s not the most athletic guy which makes what he does extremely impressive,” said Mobley about his former teammate. Mobley continuously tried to lift little things from Love’s game. From how Love sets his feet up for threes, his playmaking, his positioning as a rebounder, to how he initiates contact and more. Isaiah calls these Love’s “cheat codes” to the game. Those cheat codes have allowed Love to still be an impact player. Mobley hopes he can add enough of them to do the same.
“I’d pick up these little things from watching him and him telling me to tell Even to ‘look for this’ while you’re playing. I tell Evan, but I keep it for myself as well. It’s hard to pinpoint [what Love has meant for my development]. It was a lot of things. But I was sponging it all up and asking questions as well.”
One of the things you notice spending any amount of time around Isaiah is that he seems to always be observing and internalizing his surroundings. This can be seen in the way he interacts with others but also shows up most noticeably on the court. Everything he does seems calculated and measured until he’s in a situation he’s truly comfortable in being himself in.
Mobley picked up on nuances of the game with the Cavs and then enacted them with the Charge in a controlled environment. This allowed Mobley to become more comfortable on the perimeter, as a shooter and in those areas Love has throughout his career as his rookie season progressed.
“Isaiah is someone who’s able to be out on the perimeter and space the floor,” said Charge head coach Mike Gerrity. “You can also put the ball in his hands and he’s able to make the right passes and the right reads.”
Developing a consistent outside shot is one of the quickest ways for him to get onto an NBA floor. He showed promise as a shooter by knocking down 36.3% of his 3.2 threes per game with the Charge.
“I think it just opens up the rest of the game for him,” said Charge associate head coach Chris Darnell. “Guys were closing out on him respecting his shot so he could get downhill.”
Getting downhill and around the basket was where Isaiah did most of his damage and has traditionally felt most comfortable. He often proved to be too much to handle in the post for shorter G League forwards as he drew the fifth most fouls with 6 per game. This is in addition to converting 61.9% of his shots from five feet and in and 48.5% of his looks from five to nine feet.
“What makes Isaiah good and what will translate to the NBA level is his touch and feel at the basket,” said Charge general manager Brandon Yu. “In the last two playoff games [for the Charge] he had a couple left hand finishes. At the start of the year it was all right, right right. He was comfortable and confident enough to use the left in a playoff game. Using both hands like that around the rim and developing that touch is big. He might not get as many true post touches in an NBA game, but the skills required to score that way will translate well.”
The transition from college to the pros defensively was possibly a bigger adjustment for Mobley. Learning how to go from being a paint bound big on the defensive end to one that is both comfortable defending the rim and staying with opponents on the perimeter is a key to survival in the NBA. His defensive development will determine how quickly he can make an impact for the Cavs.
“We know [Mobley] is pretty good at coverage defense, but let’s switch,” Yu said. “It might not be the best thing right now for that game. But in the long-run for us as an organization it was. By the end of the season we did want him to switch onto guys.”
“I think he’s very capable of doing that,” said Gerrity when asked about Mobley’s perimeter defense. “He’s a very smart defensive player. He knows where his help is coming from. He’s got great footwork. I don’t have any concerns from that standpoint. It’s just a matter of being in those situations and getting those game reps so he can continue to improve.”
Mobley needing more game reps in these types of situations is something Charge assistant coach Chris Darnell also believes.
“It’s important for him to understand what he’s doing with his body. Understanding who he’s closing out to and what his coverage is. What’s his coverage when he’s closing out to a shooter? What is his coverage when he’s closing out to a driver? It’s still the evolution of learning the NBA game.
“When he sees it coming and it’s a little bit slower developing, he’s smart and can get in a spot to shut it down,” said Darnell. “But sometimes when it’s quicker developing, being a second or two late to get there he can get a little off balance. This leads to either giving up a shot or maybe now they can switch his hips and can get downhill on him. Just trying to have the game slow down and see plays develop before they happen. Now, you’re in your spot a half second earlier to put out that fire.”
This is an area that Isaiah knows there’s room to improve in, but he’s confident he’s able to do so.
“I really do feel comfortable switching,” Mobley said. “One thing I definitely want to get better at is closing out and guarding the first dribble. I feel like some of the best defenders in the league do that. So this summer it’s really something I want to focus on because I feel like if I can be in the middle and protect the paint, but also close out and guard those first two, three dribbles against smaller guys, it only makes my value increase and helps the team.”
Overall, it was a successful rookie season for the elder Mobley. He finished his first season with the Charge averaging 21.5 points with an effective field goal percentage of 56% and a 65.9 true shooting percentage with 8.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game in 32 contests.
Applying what he’s learned to an NBA court is the next steps for Mobley. Even though he still has much to prove, he and those who’ve watched his game closely aren’t ready to put a ceiling on who he could be.
“It’s hard to put a ceiling on it because how much growth he’s shown since last Summer League,” Yu said. “He’s got the right mindset and mentality. His body transformation from Summer League, to the start of our season, to now is night and day. If he can do that in one year, what doe’s it look like in two years or three years or four years? Not just with the body, but with shooting or making reads or with the defense. He’s the type of kid that has the right mentality and professional habits that he’s going to keep getting better and better.”
Mobley’s unwavering self-confidence combined with his willingness to admit and improve on the areas he needs to is what keeps him pushing and believing he can achieve an even better version of himself.
“I don’t think there’s a ceiling. Obviously, I think there’s delusion. But pushing right up to the point of ignorant delusion is good in that sense because there’s no cap. Like, let’s see how far I can go. Whether that’s MVP of the league or MVP of the G League. Whatever it is.
“I feel like it’s almost better to have an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of feel instead of thinking ‘maybe I’d be as good as this guy or that guy.’ When you say that and get to that point you might not ever push past. So I think having a little bit of delusion is good.
“I don’t really put a ceiling on myself.”