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Evan Mobley Is the Biggest Prize in the 2021 NBA Draft

This year’s class is loaded with talent, but no prospect since Anthony Davis can do all the things that USC’s Mobley can

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Evan Mobley is a different kind of 7-footer. The USC freshman stands out even among the ones drafted in the top five over the past few seasons. He can thrive on the perimeter at both ends of the floor in a way few big men can. The normal rules about centers being less important in the modern NBA don’t apply to him. Players like Mobley have never been more valuable.

The 2021 NBA draft is loaded, but it almost doesn’t matter who else is in the class. Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State) and Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga) have been incredible in their own right, while Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga (G League Ignite Team) could shine when their season starts in February. But none can do all the different things that Mobley can. The value his rare skill set would bring to an NBA team means that he has to be in the running for the no. 1 pick.

There are three things that make Mobley special. The first is his ability to create his own offense off the dribble:

Mobley makes those plays look easy when, for a player his size, they are anything but. Going from the 3-point line to the rim and scoring requires the skill to handle the ball, the quickness to beat defenders off the dribble, the basketball IQ to read defenses, the coordination to rise up under control, and the touch to make shots with a hand in your face.

His game isn’t built around bullying smaller defenders. Per Synergy Sports, Mobley is in the 13th percentile of post scorers nationwide. He’s slender like a guard (7-foot and 210 pounds) and isn’t strong enough to pin defenders on his back and power through them. A big man like him would have been called “soft” a generation ago. Shaquille O’Neal will probably hate him.

But the NBA has mostly moved past that more bruising style of play. It has been a long time since a team won a title by pounding smaller opponents inside. It’s not that being smaller is an advantage—it’s that smaller teams tend to be faster and more skilled. Mobley offers those benefits without sacrificing any size. He’s the best of both worlds. He can do all the same things as big wings and small-ball big men, except he’s 7 feet tall. The idea is to use his length (7-foot-5 wingspan) to beat perimeter players at their own game instead of overpowering them. That’s what made Anthony Davis so unstoppable in the playoffs.

Mobley obviously has a long way to go before he can get to that level. He’s not a finished product offensively. He needs to tighten up his handle and refine his jumper. He’s shooting 40 percent from 3 and 68.8 percent from the free throw line on six attempts per game this season. But the foundation is already in place. Mobley is more than comfortable playing on the perimeter on offense. He was a guard in middle school, which you can see when watching him play.

The second thing that makes him special is his unusually strong feel for such a big player. His subpar passing numbers this season (1.5 assists compared to 2.4 turnovers per game) have more to do with the lack of shooting around him at USC. He can read the floor at a high level and pass to open players. He’s a good decision-maker who can run the offense from anywhere on the court:

The problem for the Trojans this season is that they don’t know how to take advantage of his playmaking. Mobley is unselfish and will find the open man when the defense collapses on him. His teammates just don’t always return the favor. All the players in the rotation seem to believe they are NBA prospects who should be hunting for their own shot. There are long stretches of games when they seemingly forget Mobley is even out there.

The makeup of USC’s roster is holding him back. The team’s starting point guard (sophomore Ethan Anderson) is an inconsistent playmaker who has been out for most of the season with a back injury. The players behind him are even worse options. Combine that with an overall lack of 3-point shooting and it’s easy for defenses to crowd Mobley when he does get the ball. USC is no. 112 in the country in assists (14.5 per game) and no. 295 in 3-point attempts (18.3).

Mobley plays almost exclusively in big frontcourts with little spacing. He starts next to his older brother Isaiah (an NBA prospect in his own right), and they are backed up by a traditional big man in senior Chevez Goodwin. Evan has to space the floor for them instead of the other way around. His production this season (15.8 points on 58.9 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds per game) is closer to his floor than his ceiling with better teammates around him.

But Mobley still dominates the game even when he isn’t getting the ball. That’s the third thing that makes him special. You have to go back to Anthony Davis (2012) to find an NCAA big man drafted in the top five who averaged more blocks and steals combined per game than Mobley:

Mobley’s Defensive Numbers

Player Year Drafted Blocks Steals Combined
Player Year Drafted Blocks Steals Combined
Anthony Davis 2012 4.7 1.4 6.1
Evan Mobley 2021 3 0.7 3.7
Jaren Jackson Jr. 2018 3 0.6 3.6
Joel Embiid 2014 2.6 0.9 3.5
James Wiseman 2020 3 0.3 3.3
Karl-Anthony Towns 2015 2.3 0.5 2.8
Deandre Ayton 2018 1.9 0.6 2.5
Cody Zeller 2013 1.3 1 2.3
Alex Len 2013 2.1 0.2 2.3
Jahlil Okafor 2015 1.4 0.8 2.2
Marvin Bagley III 2018 0.9 0.8 1.7

His individual numbers have translated to team success on that end of the floor. Mobley has the Trojans playing elite defense despite losing most of their starters from last season, including no. 6 pick Onyeka Okongwu. They are no. 2 in the country in field goal percentage allowed (35.7). Mobley shuts down the paint so completely that many teams stop bothering to even attack him:

He’s the complete package defensively. Mobley can protect the rim and extend out on the perimeter to switch onto smaller guards. It doesn’t always look like he’s moving that fast. But he’s light on his feet and glides around effortlessly. His ability to cover ground quickly surprises opponents enough that he’s already blocked a lot of jumpers this season:

The closest thing to a hole in his game is his lack of strength. Mobley needs to put on weight to avoid getting pushed around by bigger players. But you can’t evaluate young 7-footers based on how they look as college freshmen. You have to project how their frame will develop over time. Davis has gained 30 pounds since his days at Kentucky. Mobley may never be built like Deandre Ayton or James Wiseman, but he doesn’t need to be, either. Ayton, the no. 1 pick in 2018, and Wiseman, the no. 2 pick in 2020, are similar athletes with more size and strength than Mobley at this stage of their careers. Where Mobley has the edge is that he isn’t still learning how to play and defend on the perimeter. They can’t pass on the move past the 3-point line or effortlessly switch screens.

Those skills are more important for a young big man in 2020 than being able to win wrestling matches in the paint. Mobley just needs to get stronger without losing any lateral quickness. If players like Wiseman and Ayton want to post him up, that plays right into his hands. Mobley’s older brother Isaiah is listed at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds; if Evan can get to that weight, he’ll be fine in the NBA.

The team that drafts Mobley will need to protect him early in his career. There’s no reason for him to wear himself out battling against bigs like Steven Adams and Jusuf Nurkic. He should probably be handled in the same way that the Grizzlies have developed Jaren Jackson Jr., pairing him with a more traditional big man like Jonas Valanciunas who can absorb some of that punishment while he grows into his body. But because Mobley isn’t as much of an outside shooter as Jackson, he will need his bruiser to also be a stretch 5.

He won’t be able to carry an NBA team right away. Mobley will need to be put in the right types of lineups, with the point guard play and 3-point shooting that he doesn’t have at USC. Patience will be necessary, like with all young big men.

But his game will be worth the wait. A stronger version of Mobley could be one of the best players in the NBA. He’s one of the few 7-footers who can dominate in a perimeter-oriented game. The only player his size at the next level who can score off the dribble, distribute the ball, shoot from anywhere, and defend all over the floor is Kevin Durant. Once again, it’s not that Mobley is a lock to be a generationally great player. It’s that his skill set is so rare that it puts him in those kinds of discussions.

Instead of getting played off the floor in the wrong matchup, he can force opponents to match up with him. The only NBA players who can do that are the ones exactly like him. And those players are almost impossible to find. Any team with the chance to select Mobley could regret passing on him, even at no. 1.