When the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Donovan Mitchell this past summer, it was both a signal and an accelerator for their young core.
A signal of faith in their ability to build upon the surprise successes of 2021-22 and an accelerator on balancing the push-pull dynamic between development and immediate winning. Among that young core, which includes Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, perhaps no more trust was placed than on the shoulders of Evan Mobley.
Over the past two months, the 21-year-old big man has emphatically reinforced the franchise’s credence. Already a perennial All-Defensive Team candidate who looks destined for steadfast NBA Defensive Player of the Year consideration in the coming seasons (he currently ranks seventh among qualified players with a 1.6 defensive DRIP), Mobley is making necessary headway offensively.
As a rookie, he averaged 15.0 points on 54.9% true shooting, converted 54.1% of his 2-pointers and hoisted 12.0 shots per game. Through the first 43 games of 2022-23, he averaged 14.5 points on 60.0% true shooting, converted 60.0% of his 2-pointers and hoisted 10.5 shots per game.
His physicality as a finisher improved, but he was still clearly adjusting to different surrounding circumstances with Mitchell in the fold. Even more of the offense ran through Cleveland’s backcourt. Spacing concerns persisted. Mobley had to navigate these changing tides, all while continuing to help anchor an elite defense alongside Allen. The scoring leap that would bring some welcomed diversity to the Cavaliers’ attack understandably hadn’t manifested yet.
Over the past 24 games, Mobley is beginning to actualize that scoring leap. Since Jan. 18, the former USC Trojan is averaging 18.7 points, drilling 59.3% of his 2-pointers and attempting 14.4 shots per game. The efficiency has declined a tad, but Mobley is growing increasingly comfortable in this new environment. He’s experimenting with the depths of his offense to behoove himself and the Cavaliers long-term.
There remain growing pains. Sometimes, he tries to bludgeon into defenders for space, only to be turned away. His 215-pound frame can still be an impediment. The handle through contact will look shaky and derail certain off-the-dribble pursuits.
By and large, though, this is a prime example of a young player embracing risks and developing in real time. Stationed on a team eyeing home-court advantage at fourth in the Eastern Conference (42-27) and a playoff series victory at the very least, Mobley’s ability to execute these strides in a winning situation is impressive and important. He’s already reaping rewards by dipping his toes into ambiguous waters.
All season, he’s emphasized better enduring contact around the rim and trimmed down those deep jumpers he dabbled with in Year 1. His long midrange frequency has plummeted from 11% to 5% and he’s shooting 73.3% at the basket, compared to 66.4% last season.
Already equipped with springy bounce and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he’s discovered newfound patience, headlined by a go-to shot fake, and shrugs off swarming limbs much more regularly. He’s stepping out of his comfort zone and putting himself in these congested areas rather than settling for jumpers that aren’t yet in the repertoire.
One of the challenges Cleveland faces offensively is how to mitigate spacing concerns when Allen and Mobley share the floor. Neither is a credible outside shooter, but they’re the defensive pillars and two of the team’s top-four players. If Mobley isn’t directly involved in a ball-screen action, deciphering where to plant him without stalling the efforts of Garland, Mitchell, Caris LeVert or whoever else is integral to fashioning a tenable offense.
As of late, it feels as though Mobley and the coaching staff are discerning in tandem optimal ways to deploy him off the ball. He’ll spend time beyond the arc, roam around the dunker spot or work the short corner. His sense for exploiting open real estate as a versatile cutter is expanding.
When the Cavaliers mounted a furious second-half comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 15, part of that rally stemmed from altering Mobley’s off-ball positioning, as he thrived as a cutter, roller and dunker extraordinaire instead of the spot-up duties he assumed before intermission. He’s rapidly identifying opportunities to leverage defenses ignoring him into beneficial scenarios. His intersection of length and bounce shines in these instances.
The Cavaliers’ most pressing need offensively is corner shooting. Defenses are routinely abandoning the corner to interfere with happenings inside the arc. Those looks are available, but Cleveland ranks 16th in corner 3 accuracy at 39.1%. Hitting 18.2% of his corner triples and 21.3% of all his 3s, Mobley isn’t remedying that problem.
However, a secondary flaw of this offense is the lack of scoring juice in the frontcourt, particularly against mismatches. Allen’s improved in this regard, but is nonetheless pretty limited. Rangy, physical, switch-heavy defenses pose issues for Mitchell and Garland by short-circuiting their driving lanes and closing down space for jumpers.
Staying in front and occupying the gaps pristinely is a recipe to muck up that offense. It’s why Cleveland’s experienced some offensive droughts against the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors the past couple of seasons. Defenses don’t fear the repercussions of switching screens because the bigs won’t reliably punish smaller defenders, whether it’s on the block, as a driver or any other avenue. Kevin Love was a trusty mismatch scorer for much of 2021-22, a trait that underscored his vitality and Cleveland’s shortcomings in that realm.
Mobley struggled with this considerably last year. Guards crowded his handle and he couldn’t outmuscle them either. Once a weak point of his arsenal, it’s swiftly emerging as a strength. He’s applying his quickness off the bounce and plowing through dudes, especially over the past two months.
He’ll get turned away and burp up some brutal midrangers occasionally. But he’s absolutely refined this component of his game to give opponents pause when they stash lesser or shorter defenders on him.
The decisiveness of his buckets above resonates. After plaguing some of his endeavors last season, hesitancy is absent from those clips.
Mobley commits to his decisions. As a rookie, he was prone to simultaneously surveying the floor and slowly proceeding. It negated his advantages and led him to some precarious spots.
Similarly, when he explored off the dribble from the perimeter, he didn’t act swiftly; defenders had time to dislodge him or bother his handle. Now, he’s expedient, eating up space with his lanky frame. He knows his spots, how to get there and how to operate when he arrives. That’s all crucial.
He’s found his places of comfort and is assured of what to do. It’s evident in his approach on both face-ups and drives.
As it pertains to title hopes, Cleveland feels one shooter and another year of Mobley’s (and others’) maturation away from potentially entering those conversations. Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia are all really good, either led by in-their-prime stars and/or flanked by veteran role players.
Cleveland’s foundation is young. Mitchell is 26. Allen is 24. Garland is 23. Mobley is 21. The NBA landscape moves too hastily to make any firm declarations about this club’s future or staying power, but Mobley’s recent metamorphosis bodes well. He’s sharpening aspects of his repertoire that will clearly help himself and address areas where the Cavaliers are deficient.
His growth is helping them win games now and will elevate them down the line. It’s presumably the sort of timeline this franchise envisioned when it mashed the gas pedal six months ago and brought in Mitchell.
Mobley entered 2023 as an excellent player. Two months later, he looks considerably better. The star turn is taking shape.
Research support provided by Stats Perform’s Jake Coyne.