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The Rookie Curve: Will the Cavs Choose Winning Now Over Their Future Cornerstone?

The big money Cleveland spent on its frontcourt could limit the development of Evan Mobley, the no. 3 pick

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Paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will examine some of the 2021 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season.

Evan Mobley is joining a suddenly crowded frontcourt in Cleveland. The Cavs used the no. 3 pick on Mobley and then handed out $167 million in contracts to Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen. They also have Kevin Love, who still has two years and $60 million left on his deal and is uninterested in a buyout. Mobley will likely split time between center and power forward this season, depending on whom he’s playing with. The problem for Cleveland is that it may have to choose between developing its potential franchise player and winning now.

Mobley played mostly power forward at USC, where he shared a frontcourt with his older brother Isaiah. Though they were 6-foot-10 or taller, the Mobley brothers could pass and handle the ball well enough to play on the perimeter on offense. Neither was a consistent shooter, but that didn’t matter in college, where their length and athleticism could overpower smaller teams, even if opponents packed the paint against them. It will be much harder for that strategy to be effective in the NBA.

Lack of spacing was a big issue for Mobley at summer league. Starting next to another non-shooting big man forced him to spend a lot of time on the perimeter, which made it hard for him to threaten the defense. Over three games, Mobley averaged 11.3 points on 34.9 percent shooting, and shot 12.5 percent from 3 on 2.7 attempts per game. He was either pulling up for jumpers that he couldn’t consistently knock down, driving the ball into traffic, or posting up in crowds.

Mobley has potential as a shooter. He shot decently in college—30 percent from 3 and 69 percent from the free throw line. The more encouraging numbers were from 2-point range—61.5 percent on 9.1 attempts per game—especially when you consider his role. Mobley wasn’t just catching lobs at the rim; he was creating his own offense and making difficult shots from all over the floor. According to Synergy Sports, he was in the 92nd percentile among college players on runners and the 78th percentile when shooting off the dribble. That kind of touch is an indication that he should be able to expand his range in time.

But his jumper should be a complementary part of his game, not the foundation. Spacing the floor in the NBA is a difficult job that few young big men are ready for. Even Karl-Anthony Towns (1.1 per game) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (2.4) didn’t attempt many 3s as rookies. It takes time to get comfortable operating so far from the basket.

The issue is that Cleveland really needs outside shooting. The Cavs were no. 28 in the NBA in 3-point attempts and no. 30 in 3-point percentage last season. Allen, their starting center, is a rim runner most effective in a Clint Capela–style role. Isaac Okoro, their small forward and the no. 5 pick in the 2020 draft, is a slasher who shot 29 percent from 3 on 3.2 attempts per game as a rookie and 28.6 percent on 3.5 attempts at this year’s summer league. Put Mobley between them and the Cavs offense will have little room to breathe.

Mobley has everything else that NBA teams look for in a power forward. He is the rare 7-footer with the agility to get down in a stance and chase smaller players on defense. He more than held his own in a summer league matchup against Franz Wagner, a rookie combo forward taken by the Magic at no. 8. He also made impressive passes both from the high post and while dribbling on the move, averaging 3.0 assists per game. But he needs to play with shooting around him instead of being asked to be a shooter at this stage of his career.

Mobley makes more sense next to a stretch big man like Markkanen compared to a more traditional big man like Allen. Trading for the former Chicago sharpshooter means there is no role in Cleveland for Love, who will be the fourth big man in the rotation. The best-case scenario for the veteran is getting a few minutes per game next to Mobley on the second unit.

But pairing Mobley with a shooter creates a problem on defense. Neither Markkanen nor Love can protect the rim. Mobley is an elite shot blocker (2.9 per game in college), but he’s also a skinny 20-year-old (215 pounds) who lacks the strength to bang with bigger centers. That was clear in USC’s Elite Eight loss to Gonzaga, when he was bullied by fringe NBA prospect Drew Timme.

The hope is that Mobley’s frame will allow him to fill out in much the same way as Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Allen is another example of a big man who transformed himself physically after a few years in the league. The learning curve for centers in the NBA is huge. Few playoff teams can afford to start an inexperienced player at the position.

That creates a dilemma for Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff: Mobley can’t play center as well as Allen or power forward as well as Markkanen. The best way to square that circle would be to pair him with a stretch 5 like Myles Turner who can both stretch the defense and wrestle in the paint. But considering the resources the Cavs already have devoted to their frontcourt, Mobley will likely be at his best this season as a second-unit center who doesn’t have to match up with Goliaths like Joel Embiid.

That’s a small role for a top-three pick. Bickerstaff will have a hard time cutting into the 30.3 minutes Allen averaged last season after the team signed him to a $100 million extension, which would leave only 18 minutes per game for Mobley. The only way to get his prized rookie the minutes he needs is to play the two 7-footers together and live with the lack of spacing that comes with it.

And doing that will mean losing games. It would be a lot easier to stomach that in Year 1 of the rebuild as opposed to Year 4. Cleveland has won an average of 20 games over the past three seasons. How willing are the Cavs to continue sacrificing the future for the present, given how bleak things have been?

The problem is that there isn’t much else to be excited about besides Mobley. None of their past three lottery picks—Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Okoro—looks like a future franchise player. Nor do they form a group better than the sum of its parts. Sexton and Garland are undersized guards who can’t defend multiple positions. Okoro can defend, but can’t play off them on offense until he develops as a shooter. Cleveland is closer to Detroit and Orlando, both of whom are starting rebuilds, than Chicago and Toronto, the other two teams to miss the play-in tournament in the East.

The Cavs might as well start the season gunning for a top-10 seed. But they also have to be realistic if things start going in the wrong direction. Developing Mobley should be their top priority. It’s not his fault that Cleveland has been one of the worst franchises in the NBA since LeBron left again.

Mobley has a chance to be a franchise cornerstone, like AD and Giannis were for the past two NBA champions. Both have the ability to protect the rim, defend out to the 3-point line, and create their own shot. They can score at will and lock up the best perimeter player on the opposing team. The modern 7-footer has ended the small-ball revolution. That’s the kind of player any rebuilding team lucky enough to win the lottery should be looking for.

There’s obviously no guarantee that Mobley will become that good. It will depend both on how the Cavs develop him on the court and how he develops off it. The path forward is long. But at least Cleveland has a destination in sight. It may just take a few more years at the bottom to get there.