Evan Mobley’s family had a fish tank, filled mostly with oscar and African cichlids variations. One afternoon, his father Eric returned home and went to feed them. As he was facing the tank and preparing the fish flakes, a loud noise startled him.
He craned his neck and saw a pair of long legs whiz behind him. Eric realized those legs belonged to his youngest son. Evan, then a sixth grader and already taller than 6 feet, had performed a backflip over the marble floor in their house, shaking the ground upon landing on his feet. It could have been his head.
Evan was thrilled. Eric was terrified.
“Did you just do a backflip?!” Eric said.
“Yeah, Dad!” Evan squealed.
“Please don’t ever do that again,” Eric said, trying to maintain composure. “That is not safe.”
Eric knew then: His son was different. His oldest son, Isaiah, was a budding basketball phenom, but Evan was uniquely athletic. Always had been. As a child, Evan used to climb to the very top of the monkey bars and try all sorts of perilous things: flip off the top, hang over the sides. He could do the splits. He’d often jump around at the nearby trampoline park, soaring into the air, his legs swinging every which way.
Even now, at 20 years old, with his 7-foot, 215-pound frame and 7-foot-4 wingspan, Evan is still doing backflips. Thankfully, now they’re in the sand. Seven-footers just don’t move like him, let alone dominate like him—even on the basketball court.
Considered a top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft, the USC freshman is the prototypical modern-day big man. He has the agility and ballhandling skills of a point guard and the finesse and refined post moves of a center. One who can use his length and quickness to attack offensively from the top, the wing, or the interior. One with the court vision and high basketball IQ to fire pinpoint passes from anywhere. And one agile enough to defend guards, switch on screens, protect the paint, and swat shots.
He doesn’t just move differently—he thinks differently. He dissects niche things on tape others might miss, such as how a player lands on the court or which hand he passes from. He has always been a quick learner. As a teen, his parents put him in piano classes, and he was playing Beethoven after the first few lessons. Then he taught himself how to play 2 Chainz’s “Watch Out” on the keys.
He was a curious kid, always questioning how things were built. He was obsessed with the Discovery Channel show How Stuff Works. When his dad changed tires or oil, Evan would watch him, fascinated, and pepper his dad with questions. He was just as inquisitive on the court; Evan would observe his brother Isaiah, just 21 months older, do a move before trying to emulate it. “Evan would then try it and almost get it down to a science,” says Eric, who coached both Evan and Isaiah as an assistant at USC.
By high school, while other kids were consumed with playing pickup and shooting games, Evan practiced passing. Yes, passing. By himself. As a big man. Again and again. He still practices all kinds of passes: right-hand passes, left-hand passes; skip passes crosscourt, hook passes over heads. No detail is too small for him to perfect, from his fingertips to his footwork.
“I need to get better every day at something, even if it’s not even that much, just by a hair,” Mobley says. “I don’t feel as good if there’s a day I slipped up, or didn’t get better at something. I don’t feel as good about myself.”
“I don’t want to be stagnant,” he says.
He doesn’t want to fall short of the standards he’s set for himself and for his future. The breakdowns of his game are tantalizing. Scouts and analysts believe he has “a ton more upside” as a two-way “7-foot wing” with “long-term potential to be a go-to scorer.”
“He’s unicorn-ish,” says Joe Smith, who represents Mobley with Thad Foucher at Wasserman.
“I think that Evan has a chance to be one of one. A generational player in the NBA,” says Etop Udo-Ema, Compton Magic’s founder and CEO, who coached Mobley through AAU.
But Mobley was not necessarily expected to be great, let alone a lottery pick, when he first picked up a ball. When Evan was 10 years old, his dad would give him a Twix, his favorite candy, if he dribbled 50 times perfectly with his left hand. He was more of a curiosity then; Isaiah was the budding phenom.
Evan was unranked by some scouting services heading into his freshman year at Rancho Christian High School in Temecula, California, all the way through his sophomore year. But he has always stood out. His parents would bring his birth certificate to his AAU tournaments in elementary school because other teams would complain that he looked too tall to compete.
Evan’s knees would practically be at his chest when he sat in the tiny desks in his high school chemistry classes. Michael Rea, his chemistry teacher, tried to help by asking him whether he wanted to sit in the back of the class at the lab tables, on the more comfortable stools, for more leg room.
Mobley refused. “He wanted to be treated like everybody else,” Rea says.
But Mobley isn’t like everybody else. Nor is he like any prospect we’ve seen in a long time.
Evan is acutely aware of what NBA scouting reports say about him: that he’s too “soft-spoken” or “timid.” But those are just things people misunderstand about him, he says. “Just because I’m mellow and chill,” Mobley says, “doesn’t mean that I’m not hardworking, and a leader, and competitive.”
He speaks when he has something important to say, not because he feels the need to be heard. He’s measured and thoughtful with his sentences. “‘Reserved’ is the word I like to use for him,” says Nicol, his mother.
He doesn’t feel the need to yell or roar or gesture after an emphatic dunk. Of which there are plenty, such as against Oregon, when he had a monster two-handed jam over Franck Kepnang in a Sweet 16 victory. He hung on the rim for a brief second, then sprinted back as fast as he could. He didn’t scream or taunt his opponent. He didn’t need to.
“I let my game speak for itself,” Mobley says. “People operate differently. Not everyone is the same person. This is me. This is how I operate.”
“You can’t please everyone,” he says. “I just have to be myself.”
That’s a lesson his parents taught him at a young age: Just be you. To be himself and not try to compete with everybody else. They taught him to respect the game. To not gloat. To be humble.
Ethan Anderson, a USC guard and Mobley’s former roommate, says he’s never been around someone as stoic as Mobley. Nothing seems to stir him too high or too low. Before the biggest of games, Mobley always looks completely self-assured.
“He just doesn’t have nerves, like I’ve seen other people have, when they’re top players,” Anderson says. “There’s a lot of pressure on him to perform but he’s calm. He’s a real quiet assassin.”
He carries himself as someone much older than his age. He thinks about the kind of pro player he wants to become, the kind of person he wants to grow into. When asked the best quality a human being can have, he pauses for a second:
At first, Evan didn’t really love basketball like his brother did. Evan just thought it was fun to travel to AAU tournaments to play with his friends and his brother. He wanted to do exactly what his brother did. Run when Isaiah ran, shoot how Isaiah shot.
But the two were ultracompetitive. As children, when they would play one-on-one in the family’s backyard half court, Evan was outmatched. Isaiah’s slight age advantage went a long way, as he was much stronger and could easily overpower him. He’d slam Evan to the ground on some possessions, posting him up, scoring over him. Sometimes Evan would start crying, then scream: “Isaiah’s cheating!”
“He’d have a temper tantrum,” Isaiah says. By middle school, games got so chippy between the pair that their dad would have to summon Evan into the house after he lost, because he often tried to pick a fight. But Isaiah didn’t just want to beat his baby brother; he wanted to make him better, too. Build up his confidence. Help him get stronger.
So Isaiah wouldn’t call fouls, and he’d give Evan the ball back, even when it wasn’t his turn. “Come on, Evan, you can do this!” Isaiah would tell him. The two were close, and Isaiah would report back to Evan and pass on everything he learned at a basketball camp or practice. And, as Isaiah morphed into a five-star prospect, he’d share so much knowledge with his baby brother that Evan almost had two sets of eyes: his brother’s and his own.
Isaiah saw promise in his younger brother. How Evan, even though he was lanky and not yet polished, wouldn’t back down from anyone. Not from his older brother. Not even from the grown men they played against with their dad at LA Fitness.
In those pickup games, Eric would run point, drive to the hoop, and kick the ball out to his sons on the wing, who had to practice getting their feet set and spotting up. It gave Evan confidence, knowing he could hang against much older players.
Eric and Nicol were both former basketball players. Eric, who is 6-foot-7, played for the University of Portland and Cal Poly Pomona as well as professionally overseas, and Nicol, 6 feet, was a member of a state title team as a high schooler in San Diego.
They knew their boys would be tall, but weren’t certain how tall (Isaiah is 6-foot-10), so they drilled the fundamentals into them, hoping to make them as versatile as possible. They didn’t want them to be boxed into one position under the basket.
Plus, Evan was playing against older kids, so he had no choice but to bring the ball up at times. Eric had his boys practice the basics, over and over, until they perfected them: jump stops after dribbling full speed; no wobbling backward. Reverse pivots; holding the ball strong. Both brothers knew the ins and outs of the motion offense by age 12.
Eric coached their AAU team, Triple Threat, which Evan played on before the Compton Magic. He drove to tournament after tournament in his Suburban, and even when the boys weren’t playing, Eric drove them hundreds of miles just to watch other kids play. Basketball, he was teaching them, was something not just to be played, but to be studied.
Then they’d go home and watch NBA games, and Eric would pause the TiVo if a player had a fast-break opportunity. He’d turn to his sons and ask: “What would you do in this situation, with a man on each wing?” Then they’d play back the film and pore over the player’s decision.
By eighth grade, Evan started to fall in love with basketball. It helped that he sprouted a whopping 11 inches between eighth and ninth grade. Suddenly he could hold his own in the post and weave in and out of the paint with his handle. He was mammoth, but he was also naturally fast, able to beat people off the dribble with his first step.
Still, his freshman year he barely played, mostly because he was injured. People used to ask Isaiah: “Does Evan even play basketball like that?”
Once he returned from injury, he started to show more and more promise. He wasn’t dunking on everyone; he was long, but not yet explosive. He had natural instincts, speed, and intelligence. His high school coach, Ray Barefield, had long seen potential in Evan, but became more convinced of his professional aspirations during Evan’s first year of high school. But he had to tell the young teenager to be more aggressive, take more shots. Slowly Evan started developing confidence, breaking into the lineup sophomore year.
He’d show up at 5:30 a.m., often before other teammates, to work on his passes and crossovers before practice. “He would stay after, too,” Barefield says.
Evan started playing outside during lunchtime, coming to class sweating profusely, at times with dusty hands from the dirty surface of the ball. But it felt good, improving each day. The potential was tantalizing.
Evan’s parents had always told him to not pay attention to recruiting rankings. “Rankings don’t matter,” Eric would often tell him. “Stay the course.”
Just be you. Be the best Evan you can be. Don’t try to compete with everybody else.
So Evan didn’t get discouraged, even though some young players might, given how much emphasis the circuit places on a prospect’s individual rankings. He just kept working. Then, during a dominant summer of AAU basketball after his sophomore year, his skills suddenly caught up to his new body, and he was not just holding his own against the nation’s best recruits, but dominating. One day, Evan received a text message from his friend.
“Hey, do you know you’re the no. 1 player in the country?”
Evan was confused. “I’m not even ranked?”
Sure enough, he had leapfrogged all the way to no. 1. “I was shocked,” Evan says, “but it didn’t really hit me yet. I was playing like I was always playing, but I was finally seen.”
He continued to work, not just offensively but defensively. Again, there was that drive. That hunger to be the best he could be. To not take any possessions off.
“He never pouted,” says Glen Worley, a former coach with Compton Magic. “He just played his butt off every possession.”
Many people who hadn’t known his name before were suddenly talking about him. His newfound fame came with comments about his game and where he’d fit in (or not fit in) at the next level. He had to keep the same mindset he had before he was ranked: that these comments didn’t mean much, even if now people recognized him and praised him. What mattered was proving himself every time he stepped on the court. Never getting carried away with his own hype. Just being … Evan.
But others had ideas of who Evan should be.
“My toughest moment, I feel like I was maintaining people’s expectations,” Mobley says. “When you get that high, people have all these opinions on you, and this and that, and they don’t even know who you are.”
He clung tighter to his family. To his brother, who had always believed in him long before anyone ranked him. Evan won California Gatorade State Player of the Year twice, as well as numerous national awards, including the 2020 Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year award, and was named a McDonald’s All American. He became the highest-ranked recruit in USC history.
Rea, his chemistry teacher, thought he could excel beyond the basketball court, though Evan was set on becoming a pro. Evan was talented at math—especially algebra—and science. “Academically, he could do anything he wants,” Rea says.
One afternoon during Evan’s senior year, Rea asked him: “What are you going to major in in college?”
“I think I might take a couple business classes,” Rea recalls Mobley saying.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“I may have to manage money.”
Mobley shined for USC last season, leading the Trojans to their first Elite Eight appearance since 2001. On a team without a true point guard, he proved to be a phenomenal passer, often driving, dishing, and setting up others when the inevitable double- and sometimes triple-teams swarmed him.
He knocked down shots from long distance and was a terror on the glass. He guarded positions 1 through 5, switching and defending pick-and-rolls with ease. “I like guarding guards. The guards think they can go by me or do this and that because they have a big or whatever,” Mobley says. “But I like guarding them so I can prove them wrong and be like, ‘Nah you can’t.’”
That is Mobley at his core: humble, but confident. Competitive, but not arrogant. Still, even as he proved to be one of the top prospects in the country, some critics said he wasn’t aggressive enough, wasn’t loud enough. Wasn’t demanding the ball enough.
“People mistake his lack of facial expressions as that he’s not playing hard or doesn’t have emotions,” says Andy Enfield, USC’s coach, “but he plays as hard and is as extreme a competitor as anyone I’ve ever coached.”
He knows when to take over, or when to inspire confidence in others, such as when Anderson was in a bad shooting slump at one point last season. Opponents were double-teaming Mobley and not bothering to even get a hand up on Anderson’s attempts. Mobley, however, kept passing to Anderson, even though Anderson kept bricking. After one of those misses, during a dead ball, Mobley pulled Anderson aside.
“I’m going to keep passing it to you,” Mobley whispered to him. “You just keep shooting, OK?”
Anderson nodded. And, sure enough, the next couple times down the floor, Mobley kicked it out to him as soon as the double-team collapsed on him. Anderson hit several shots in a row.
Mobley and Anderson caught eyes for a second, as the two sprinted back on defense. Mobley looked at him as if to say: See? I got you.
Mobley’s life is about to change. On Thursday, he could be selected by Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, or another team that could trade up to nab him. He and his parents are excited and trying to enjoy the experience.
There’s a moment that Evan’s been thinking about, preparing for, since he was a kid, back when he and his dad would watch NBA games all the way through postgame interviews.
Eric would pause the TV and then clutch an imaginary microphone. The two pretended they were on an NBA sideline, Eric as the reporter, Evan as the NBA rookie.
“So, Evan,” Eric would say, leaning into the mic, looking at his son. “How did you feel out there tonight?”
These days he’s in the gym earlier in the morning and he stays longer, laboring on expanding his range. Drill after drill, he catches and shoots, catches and shoots. He hardly leaves the gym. “I still need to get stronger,” Mobley says. Then he takes it a step further, in a tone some might not expect from someone who is sometimes called shy or passive: “Within a few years,” Mobley says, “I think that I could definitely be a generational player, that no-one-has-ever-seen-before-type of player.”
He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t add anything, either. His eyes narrow just slightly, almost as if he is on the court again. He has already envisioned how it will look, how it might feel, becoming that kind of player. He smiles. He’s still heeding his parents’ advice: Just be you.