Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley lets his play do the talking

Evan Mobley is the first Cavaliers player to be featured during the pre-game hype video and his name is the last to be featured prior to the tip.

A painting of his face is one of the first things fans see in an Arena gift shop window. His presence was one of the last things the Clippers felt in the closing minutes of a recent loss here.

Cleveland is still one of the biggest high-flyers this NBA season. Even as injuries take their toll, there’s still a chance the Cavaliers could double last season’s overall wins and make the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James called this city home. They wouldn’t be here without JB Bickerstaff, a nominee for Coach of the Year, Kevin Love and his late-career renaissance, and the all-star breakthroughs of guard Darius Garland and center Jarrett Allen.

But much of the excitement about the Cavaliers’ bright future begins and ends like their jumbotron displays and decibel-boosting launches – with Mobley.

It’s not normal for a 7-footer to have their combination of fluidity and strength, or for a rookie to gain a coach’s trust before their first NBA season begins. Mobley, a star at Temecula Rancho Christian High and USC before being drafted third overall last summer, possesses all of the above qualities and is now the front runner to win Rookie of the Year.

“Most 19, 20-year-olds, when they come into the league, it takes a little bit of time before they can say, ‘You know what? We can count on this guy,’” said Bickerstaff. “And Evan almost immediately, when you saw him playing pick-up in early September, when you saw him going through the preseason, there was a stability that you don’t normally see in a rookie and I started to trust him almost immediately. “

Mobley has repaid that trust by averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks per game while playing through injuries. The list of rookies who averaged at least 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game is just eight players long and includes the great men of the Hall of Fame, according to the Basketball Reference , Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan along with the club’s youngest member, two-time champion Pau Gasol.

“I think he’s going to be an all-star next year,” said Etop Udo-Ema, the Compton Magic AAU coach.

Udo-Ema has long believed that Mobley, whom he has known since Mobley was 10, could do all of this. When asked about Mobley’s calm temper, he told the talent reviewers to watch the tape. What he sees, Udo-Ema said, are parts of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant, a versatility he attributes to the work of Mobley’s father, Eric, a USC assistant, and high school coach Ray Barefield. Mobley’s mother Nicol, who moved to Cleveland this season to be near Mobley, won a state basketball title in high school in San Diego.

“He simply has too many natural and processed tools, his toolbox is simply too diverse,” said Udo-Ema. “It’s too crazy. It will be successful.”

When Barefield says he’s not the least bit surprised by Mobley’s quick move, he’s thinking of plays like a corner-to-edge drive for a goal against the Clippers on March 14, part of his career-high 30-point performance. In high school, even after Mobley grew to 7 feet, he continued to practice his ball handling in pick-and-rolls, drag screens, and quick hitters.

As a freshman and sophomore, he was deployed at everything from shooting guard to center, and in all five positions as junior and senior when he fronted a 1-2-2 full-court press and joined NBA star Jrue Holiday followed by the only two-time winner of Gatorade’s California Player of the Year.

Evan Mobley defends San Ysidro's Mikey Williams while playing for Rancho Christian High.

Evan Mobley defends San Ysidro’s Mikey Williams while playing for Rancho Christian High.

(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I know it’s a lot of pressure for him,” Barefield said, “but we had talks in high school about going into the Hall of Fame.”

But there’s a gap between a prospect’s promise and his professional production, with Barefield acknowledging that a player’s draft placement can shape his career. That’s why, when Udo-Ema left the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas last August, he was even more confident that Mobley would make the leap after seeing that Cleveland didn’t put restrictions on the rookie, allowing Mobley to turn the offensive line off to operate on the high post and on the perimeter, similar to how it was used in Magic and in high school.

“The way they used it, I knew it was going to explode,” said Udo-Ema.

In 2020, while still in high school, Mobley acknowledged that basketball “had to grow on me” in a story about his rise to becoming the nation’s top assist, and questions lingered about how his reserved personality would fit into the rougher NBA even stuck with him when he split in his only USC season, where he was voted the Pac-12’s top freshman, top defenseman, and most valuable player.

It was the biggest question that followed Mobley. For his coaches, the answer was obvious: “Once you understand what makes him tick,” said Bickerstaff. Still in disbelief at the concern, Udo-Ema says those who equate harshness with external emotions have missed the point.

Barefield had seen Mobley question the intensity of teammates during practice. Barefield assessed Mobley’s desire to work during conditioning at Temecula’s Butterfield Stage Park. When practice seemed over, Barefield challenged Mobley to imagine an NBA team calling for practice the next morning. The 7-footer took off and eventually sprinted nearly twice as many hills as Barefield’s players typically finish.

Evan Mobley (right) battles Sierra Canyon's Brandon Boston Jr. for rebound position while playing for Rancho Christian.

Evan Mobley (right) battles Sierra Canyon’s Brandon Boston Jr. for rebound position while playing for Rancho Christian High during a Showcase event in Pasadena on January 11, 2020.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“He cares about being great,” Barefield said. “I’m telling you he’s very selfless and he’s going to play the right basketball and sometimes that can be confusing because they want to see all this ridiculous stuff. I’m not saying the NBA, but folks, fans sometimes want to see someone, you know, blow their chests and smack their chests and do all that rolling and all that, but they just don’t know Evan.

“I remember playing a game when he was very young, like ninth or tenth grade, and I said, ‘Evan, I can tell you that you have some really bad intentions now.’ …And all I saw was him looking into my eyes and just starting to nod his head. He’s like a ninth grader and I’m like, wow, like he means business. I mean he blocked nine, ten shots, dove everything around the edge and there’s no reaction. You know, he doesn’t imitate with his fist.

“So you have to know Evan to know that Kiel is really scary right now. Because it is not so high, so low, it is constant.”

Against the Clippers on March 14, while playing at center and Allen sidelined through injury, Mobley posted a career-high 30 points, trailing the Clippers players, who called him more aggressive than during the teams’ first matchup at the start the season.

“He was aggressive enough to silence all these guys in the league,” said Udo-Ema.

In five-minute overtime, Mobley blocked an Ivica Zubac shot so badly that the 7-foot Zubac fell onto the field, stole a pass from Nicolas Batum, parried an assist from Garland, assisted on teammate Isaac Okoro’s layup and with 47 seconds left and the eight-leading Cavaliers grabbed a rebound that all but secured Cleveland’s win.

Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley rises over the basket to block a shot from Clippers center Ivica Zubac.

Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley blocks a shot from Clippers center Ivica Zubac during a game in Cleveland last week.

(Ron Schwane/Associated Press)

“There are so many different ways he affects winning that every night he grows on you because you see something different,” Bickerstaff said. “And his mentality never changes. The only thing he’s doing, and I’ve already said that, is trying to figure out how to help this team win. And it was never about him, it was never about, ‘I need more touches, I need more games called for me, I need this particular matchup, I need to do this.'”

The two blocks against the Clippers, which Mobley was not given credit for due to a goalie and a foul, also had an effect. Clippers guard Terance Mann – a player so confident that he twice dipped against Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert last season – acknowledged that Mobley, whom he called a “great player”, was the Clippers’ aggression marginally affected.

Opponents fired 51.6% within six feet on shots defended by Mobley, a number that tops all qualified rookies.

“You don’t see a lot of beginners out there doing what he’s doing, especially in this position,” Mann said.

All of this has left Mobley at the top of this rookie class and his supporters claim this won’t be the last time he will be compared to the greats. Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley lets his play do the talking

Andrew Schnitker

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