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Evan Mobley Is Putting It All Together

The Cavaliers’ burgeoning star has shown he can pick up just about anything. The 21-year-old, who has drawn comps to KG, Duncan, and Giannis, is already the Cavs’ most pivotal player, and it might not be long until he’s also their best. Says Mobley’s skills trainer: “He has the tools to do it all. Honestly, shit, he can be the face of the league.”

Victor Bizar Gomez

As the most compelling, ineffable 21-year-old basketball player in the world, Evan Mobley sits at the ground floor of greatness. Back in September, NBA general managers voted him as the player most likely to have a breakout season. Since, he’s emerged as the best defender on the league’s best defense, with a deep offensive repertoire that expands by the month.

When switched out on the perimeter, the 6-foot-11 Mobley buckles guards into a car seat. Test him on the inside, and he turns the restricted area into a beehive. Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff says the no. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA draft is already “one of the best pocket-playing bigs that I’ve ever seen.”

Flattery has come in waves. Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell believes his teammate will be a top-five player. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd sees shades of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP whom Kidd oversaw when Giannis was Mobley’s age. “He can do it all,” Kidd says. In November, Antetokounmpo himself said Mobley “can be better than me.”

Mobley’s stoic, deadpan demeanor hearkens back to Tim Duncan, while his defensive versatility and selfless attitude make him a direct descendant of Kevin Garnett. “I played with KG,” says Cavaliers guard Ricky Rubio. “He had that strength and mobility. I see Chris Bosh out there, too.” Several people around the NBA tell me they also spot a young Anthony Davis. “He’s a unicorn,” says Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu, who’s known Mobley since middle school. “That’s the term they use for people like him and [Victor] Wembanyama.”

The physical attributes that are typically found in big men who defined the last quarter century are present in him, but there are nights when Mobley’s blend of agility, length, stamina, elasticity, and coordination still seems novel. He’s modest yet matter-of-fact when asked about all the praise. “I don’t have a favorite comparison because I feel like all of them make sense,” he tells me.

Mobley’s upside has the Cavaliers daydreaming about banners and rings for the first time since LeBron James left. He’s ahead of schedule as the backbone of a thriving team that, according to The Ringer’s Odds Machine, is second-most likely to win the title. Since the All-Star break, Mobley is averaging 18.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game, with a 60.6 true shooting percentage. Earlier this month, he cracked the top three on’s Defensive Player of the Year ladder for the first time.

Sometimes talking about Mobley feels like spreading an exciting rumor instead of conveying information. A multi-time All-Star is the floor. The common denominator on a perennial championship contender is the ceiling, if one even exists. “It’s rare to find somebody so mature right away on both ends of the court,” Rubio says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if his career ended up in the Hall of Fame.”

If there’s any one quality that makes Mobley distinct, it’s his understanding of who he is and what he can someday be: an admirable marriage between boundless optimism and sensible vulnerability.

It’s late December at the Cavaliers practice facility—an optional get what you need day. Mobley is here as he always is, though, working on free throws, lifting weights, and getting treatment ahead of a clash against the Bucks.

I’d spent the past month talking about Mobley with people who know him well. All described him as sharp, perceptive, and, though more willing to converse than he once was, incredibly quiet.

He lopes into a room I’m sitting in that’s next to the court. Moments into our chat, I ask whether we can turn off two televisions that are mounted overhead. Mobley’s voice is soft enough to be drowned out by a shrieking Stephen A. Smith. The Cavs big man is wearing a loose tank top and basketball shorts, a trim goatee adorning his boyish face; his responses toggle between quick head nods and shrewd reflection.

When he first grabbed national attention in high school, Mobley’s inscrutability was mistaken for ambivalence by some around the NBA. But despite not having access to a predraft interview or workout, many in Cleveland’s front office ranked Mobley as the top player in his class. His talent, physical tools, and basketball IQ were enough to sell them on the impact he could have right away. But the Cavaliers (along with other NBA team executives) were also curious about Mobley’s enthusiasm. His freshman year at USC was undeniably impressive, albeit passive at times. In one game, he didn’t take a single shot.

“The questions obviously we had were, OK, ‘Does he want it? Does he want to be great?’” Cavaliers general manager Mike Gansey says. Mobley uttered no more than 15 words during their first interaction. Evan’s older brother and Cavaliers teammate, Isaiah, says that when they were kids, he’d reassure people who thought they had somehow offended a wordless Evan. It’s a solitude confirmed by his parents, who remember a teenage Mobley sitting in his room and staring at YouTube, so silent they didn’t know he was home.

“I wouldn’t call him a loner,” says Mobley’s father, Eric, an assistant coach for USC’s men’s basketball team. “But he can function without anybody around him.” Adds Nicol, his mother: “He’s reserved and all that, but he’s taking in everything that’s happening around him. People tend to think that reserved just means you’re not involved. He’s involved. He knows what’s going on. If you watch Evan, you always see the wheels turning.”

I ask him whether he’s made any changes from last year to now, after having experienced the grind of a full NBA season. Mobley mentions typical adjustments (more sleep, better diet, etc.) before revealing that he’s also been focused on his mentality. This leads to an instructive digression about confidence. Mobley isn’t necessarily short on it, but, as someone who’s self-assured in many ways and diffident in others, he’s still trying to harness the feeling to his advantage.

“I feel like most of the top players have some of the highest confidence. They think very highly of themselves. I watch their mannerisms, how they act and answer questions, [then ask myself], ‘Why are they thinking like that?’ … I’m a very humble person by nature, so trying to just have that balance of being confident but not cocky.”

Mobley’s interest has stretched beyond his sport all the way to Mike Tyson, whose conviction fascinates him. For Mobley, confidence is a skill that can be learned, and studying how the former heavyweight champion used it to his advantage can only help. “I mean, it’s kind of crazy to think about,” Mobley says. “He literally changed his mindset, personality, all that, to be the most dominant. And I feel like anyone could do that if you know how to do it.”

All of it relates to how Mobley goes out of his way to better himself in everyday life. The idea is that if he grows comfortable with being uncomfortable when he’s away from basketball, he’ll then be more willing to test himself during a game. For instance: “Going up to people and talking to people,” he says. “I feel like if you build up habits off the court, it translates to on court. Just if you live the lifestyle, like throughout your whole entire day, you’re going to become that.”

This season, when Cavaliers coaches introduce a new wrinkle at a shootaround, Mobley won’t hesitate to let them know where he wants to catch the ball if the initial design puts him in a less desirable spot. “We’ve definitely seen some growth with him, just speaking up a little bit,” Gansey says. “That’s a good thing.”

It even extends to something as seemingly insignificant as trash talk. “Last season, I didn’t talk as much, but this season I’m talking more for sure,” Mobley says, noting that he tends to do it at the free throw line, away from the camera’s eye. “You probably won’t see it. It’s usually a quick comment. … And I won’t say it with any animation, so you don’t even know if I’m talking. I just like messing around with them.”

Of course, being a successful athlete and being an introvert are not mutually exclusive. Mobley can have the affect of a librarian and still, one day, take over the league. “People kind of mistake his calm personality, but this dude has a competitive fire in him,” Bickerstaff tells me. “It’s not like, ‘I want to be just a good NBA player’ or ‘I just want to be an All-Star’ or whatever. Like, there’s a burning fire in him to be the best.”

NBA centers are tall human beings, but Mobley boasts a pair of legs that would make more sense propping up a camel. When he watches film with Cavaliers associate head coach Greg Buckner on the sideline before games, Mobley sits on two gray cushions that allow him to bend his knees at a natural angle. During our interview, as he shifts on a burgundy folding chair that wasn’t made to accommodate a giant, Mobley’s thighs slant up 45 degrees from his waist, as if he’s about to eat at a children’s table on Thanksgiving.

In the seventh grade, Mobley was already tall enough to dunk. People thought he might be the next Ralph Sampson. But in the eighth grade, he developed a painful condition called Osgood-Schlatter, which most commonly affects people experiencing a growth spurt. His parents restricted physical activity for an entire year. No running + No jumping = No basketball. Isaiah estimates that Evan sprouted about 5 inches while out. Then, as a freshman, he broke his right wrist.

The stretch of time forced Mobley to slow down and confront what was in front of him. “It was an opportunity for him to take the challenge to say, ‘OK, what else can you do in this moment?’” Nicol says. “His intake of information, it’s just high and fast. So you have to keep him busy, keep his mind occupied, because he’s a thinker and he’s always processing.” Knowing he also loved a challenge, Nicol, an elementary school teacher, told Evan about kids she knew who could write with both of their hands. He soon became ambidextrous.

An otherwise frustrating period helped mold Mobley into someone who genuinely believes that with enough time and focus, anything standing in his way can be learned, solved, or conquered. “I’m a very mental person. I feel like if you can master your mind, you can master your body,” Mobley says. “It’s perspective. A lot of people think things are harder than what it actually is. I mean, a lot of things are easy.”

Mobley could be referencing any dozen of the incredibly difficult on-court responsibilities he pulls off without breaking a sweat, but his specific example here is … something else. “Last year, I picked up bowling and then started being super good at that. I saw some of my teammates that were good at it,” he says. “Once I see how easy it is for someone else, I’m like, ‘Why can’t I?’ That’s what I think.”

His list of random skills could fill a talent show’s playbill. Most are acquired from YouTube tutorials. He can juggle and do yo-yo tricks. Recently, Mobley wanted to crack the Rubik’s Cube. It took him a few days to figure out how. “Now I can do it in probably, like, a minute,” he says. As a child, Mobley trained himself to play Beethoven on a baby grand piano. A lifelong music obsessive, today he composes beats in an area of his living room that doubles as a home studio, perched high up in an apartment building above downtown Cleveland.

“I don’t want to say he’s weird. He just has superpowers, so to speak,” Eric laughs. “What I mean by that is, like, everything is self-taught.”

The trait is a boon for Cleveland’s coaching staff. They feed him clips of Draymond Green in the open floor—Mobley has a flashing green light to push defensive rebounds coast-to-coast—and Antetokounmpo in the paint, encouraging him to pack their tools into his skill set. “My adaptability and … ability to learn quickly on the fly,” Mobley says. “I think those are the two things that make me unique.”

Cavaliers assistant coach Luke Walton, a 10-year NBA veteran, knows special when he sees it. “I was a player. I had to rep something out for 10,000 hours before it was part of my game. I played with Kyrie [Irving] when Kyrie was young. He had the ability to look at something and put it in. Kobe [Bryant] was the greatest I’ve ever seen at it. With Kobe you’d just talk to him about it, and he’d go out in a game and do it,” Walton says.

“We got clips for [Evan], and … we ask him, ‘Do you want to watch the clips?’ And every day, the answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.’ It’s fun when you can show somebody something, and they can put that into action quicker than most.”

Mobley’s first year was a revelation for the Cavaliers, who plugged him into unconventional lineups that also featured two other 7-footers, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen. He averaged 15 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks while making more than half his shots and regularly executing spontaneous feats like the one that once stirred an opponent to dap him up in the middle of the game.

Mobley finished five first-place votes short of Rookie of the Year (an award he still thinks he should have won) after Cleveland was eliminated in the play-in. But they had doubled their win total from the previous season, spurring a blockbuster trade for Mitchell that further accelerated their timeline and confirmed the organization’s belief in Mobley’s ability to realize his massive potential sooner rather than later.

To get there, Mobley spent most of his first offseason working with Olin Simplis—a longtime skills trainer who first met Mobley in high school—at Academy USA, a Los Angeles sports club in Glendale that Mobley’s agency, Wasserman, makes available to clients over the summer. About 80 percent of their time was spent on actions that simulated what his job for this season would likely be (a.k.a. “current touches”). That meant a ton of outside shooting, playmaking out of the short roll, and honing a go-to move when facing the basket.

On any given day, 15-20 other NBA players were in the same gym, running pickup games and competing in their own workouts. One was Grizzlies center Steven Adams, who helped Mobley sharpen his moves. “I partnered him up with Steven Adams on purpose,” Simplis says. “He got to taste the strength of the NBA.”

The other 20 percent of his workouts consisted of “future touches,” allowing Mobley to evolve without snubbing his present responsibilities. “He’ll do whatever the team is asking. But he has such a huge ceiling that we also don’t want to stunt his development at the same time,” Simplis says, then laughs to himself. “It’s funny, some of the same things I did with KD in Year 15, [I did] this summer as well.”

With a player who improves as quickly as Mobley does, the distinction between “current” and “future” tends to blur. Early on, he was struggling with his pull-up jumper: The speed at which he went from a live dribble into his shot was too slow, which allowed defenders to close in and take it away. That isn’t a problem for Kevin Durant.

Simplis cut up some clips of the 13-time All-Star and put them side by side with Mobley doing the exact same thing. The breakthrough happened overnight. “Obviously, it takes time with some people because they’ve been doing it a certain way for so long,” Simplis says. But after Mobley watched the video, “It just clicked.”

In a few weeks, Mobley may skip the growing pains endured by most young stars in their first taste of postseason basketball. There’s also a very real possibility that he’ll stumble against stiff competition on a team that has very little playoff experience. Either way, Mobley’s tempered outlook won’t change.

“I just go back and look at history sometimes, and be like, ‘What did so-and-so do [in] Year 2?’ Giannis wasn’t the best his second year. … Kobe, his first few games he shot like eight air balls or something. But now Kobe’s legacy, no one even thinks about that,” Mobley says. “Coming into this year, it was difficult because I wanted to make that huge jump. But throughout the year, I was just like, ‘You’re still young. It takes time.’ Once again: perspective.”

Offensively, Mobley is still teething. He scores with a methodical medley of hook shots, driving layups, effortless lobs, and the occasional midrange turnaround. But Simplis sees a booming growth stock who can directly complement Mitchell and Darius Garland while making Cleveland’s offense as imposing as its defense.

“This summer we’re gonna spend some time studying Kevin Garnett,” Simplis says. “Kevin Garnett used to get it on the block, and his inside faceup created so much space. He was able to shoot that 12 to 15 easily, and then if the defender closed, he just attacked because he still had a live dribble.”

In the meantime, Mobley’s shortcomings require patience. He has one of the lowest 3-point percentages in league history among players who’ve taken as many as he has, and it portends spacing issues in the playoffs, when he shares the floor with Allen and another non-shooter. “I feel like I have some ways to go in a lot of categories, but I know it’s all there,” Mobley says when asked about his 3-point shot. “It’s just doing it at this point.”

Even with the 3-point complication, Cleveland’s offensive rating with Allen and Mobley on the court equates to that of a top-five offense. Bickerstaff uses his two giants in unorthodox ways, like a 4-5 pick-and-roll that forces opposing big men to guard something they don’t ever practice for. It’s Allen’s favorite play. “I know they’re thinking [it’s not fair],” he laughs. “Because I would think the same thing.”

Mobley’s singularity pops up elsewhere. “It may seem like a small thing, but it’s huge for us: He’s our inbounder at the end of games,” Bickerstaff says. “Like, he’s a 7-footer who can see over the floor and can read and make decisions quickly under pressure. You don’t see many big guys take the ball out of bounds in those moments … with the game on the line.”

That trust is earned. Earlier this season, as a way to honor Mobley’s reliable crunch-time prowess, members of the Cavs started calling him “Fourth Quarter Ev.” A number of winning plays have helped give him one of the top plus-minuses this season in that quarter, during which Mobley also makes nearly 60 percent of his shots.

But the nickname was also a subtle poke at his relative deference in the game’s first 36 minutes. The Cavaliers have wanted Mobley to be more aggressive since they drafted him, and since early January, they’ve been pleased. “He’s starting to figure out when to pick his spots and just get that aggressive, nasty, ‘I can be great’ kind of attitude,” Gansey says. “You see him running around. You see more of that nasty, that sense of urgency, that motor. You haven’t seen that as much in the past.”

Mobley’s field goal attempts are a number closely monitored by Cleveland’s coaching staff and front office. In this season’s first 35 games, he attempted fewer than 10 shots 13 times. In 39 games since, he has only four such games under his belt, and he took nine shots in three of them. “He has a lot of shit in his bag,” Okongwu says. “The more aggressive he becomes, the more it’ll show.” It’s an important development for Mobley, whose near future can yield a transition from a valuable young talent to an indispensable superstar if he becomes the type of scorer whom opponents have to game-plan for. “We get on him all the time,” Garland says. “We want him to shoot 15-18 shots a game.”

The benefit of this, in Mobley’s view, is how it will help everyone else. “I feel like if I’m even more aggressive, it forces people to shift over to me more,” he says. “And my playmaking goes up even more as well. … But I feel like right now, they don’t have to shift over as much as they could.”

During his exit meeting last season, the Cavaliers told Mobley that they wanted him to add muscle to his slender frame over the summer. “Get physical, get stronger,” Bickerstaff says. “Not get bulky, but just get wiry strong so that he could withstand night after night after night after night being the aggressor.” Mobley responded this season by not only getting bigger, but also logging the fifth-most minutes in the league and leading all players in dunks.

“He’s really, really into the weights now,” Gansey says. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence. He’s been playing better and playing with more force. … For him, it’s a confidence thing where, like, ‘I’m really playing well, I’m able to go through guys and finish, and it’s gotta be because I’m lifting.’ And now he’s all in.”

How to integrate Mobley’s rise on a roster that also has Garland and Mitchell, two high-volume shooters, is the type of predicament any team would be thrilled with; the fact that Mobley doesn’t care about his own numbers, touches, or shots makes it that much easier.

“He is always trying to play the perfect game,” says Bickerstaff. “At his age, you know, most of the time guys are caught up in so many other things. But he genuinely is trying to play the game as purely and perfectly as you possibly can, every single time he steps on the floor. His game is dictated by what the defense is doing and what they’re gonna give up. And his mindset is ‘I’m gonna make them pay for giving up this corner 3 or this big-to-big play’ because it’s not about him. He doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body.”

While Mobley’s offense is a tantalizing work in progress, his defense is already inescapable. The first time Gansey saw Mobley, he thought he would be a high-level NBA player even if he averaged only eight points per game.

“I think he has the ability to be Defensive Player of the Year one day,” former Cavs forward Kevin Love says. “He does so many things that don’t even show up in the stat sheet. But I think advanced statistics are starting to track it.” One example: Mobley has ranked first in defensive real plus-minus for the past few months. With quick feet, a 7-foot-4 wingspan, and impeccable timing, he can switch, drop, protect the basket, rebound in traffic, bang in the post, and put out fires before they spark, all with enough body control to dominate basketball games as if they were played on a catwalk.

“He’s not the guy who’s always reacting late,” Bickerstaff says. “He’s the guy who’s already in position to make the play.”

When he’s at the 5, Cleveland’s defense allows a stifling 107.3 points per 100 possessions. There are 96 players who’ve appeared in at least 50 games and average more than 30 minutes. Of them, only six non-Cavs have a lower defensive rating than Mobley, who spackles over any cracks that appear in Cleveland’s wall. “Early on, he was hesitant to play the 2.9 rule. He never wanted to get called for a defensive three seconds, so he would always be erring on the side of getting back to his man,” Bickerstaff says. A conversation was had. “Now he just roams the paint.”

Only Nic Claxton has defended more isolations, and Mobley holds opponents to a paltry 0.81 points per direct play when he switches a ball screen. Only Brook Lopez has contested more shots, and according to Second Spectrum, opponents shoot just 42.1 percent in the paint when Mobley is the closest defender, one of the lowest numbers at his position. Together, it all forecasts Mobley as the apotheosis of what any one player can be and do on defense. “His help-side defense,” Allen says, and shakes his head. “It’s not said enough how much that helps our … well, it really is our defense.”

In every NBA locker room before each game, footage of that night’s opponent loops on a large television screen. Few players actually pay attention. Most are on their phones, getting treatment, or trying to avoid the media. But Mobley is an outlier. On this particular January night at Madison Square Garden, he rises from the corner, walks over to the screen, and with his left foot nudges the TV stand toward his seat. In between bites of spaghetti, Mobley gazes up at what might as well be a projection of his favorite movie.

It’s an essential part of his routine, downloading tendencies, tics, and patterns before the game. He wants to see where on the floor certain players like to pull up when a big switches out on them, or how specific actions generate open looks he can take away later. When he’s on the court trying to keep his man at bay, Mobley’s eyes are locked on theirs. “I feel like defense is a lot about body language, and as they’re turning, you can kind of see them peeking at the rim or something like that,” he says. “So from there, I’ll just bait them into trying to shoot that, and then go for a block.”

The game most people would cite as Mobley’s standout performance this season was a career-high 38-point gem in a win over the Bucks. But two weeks prior, in a two-point loss against the Jazz, Mobley forged a fourth quarter that’s even more indelible to those who watch him every day.

“Defensively, his impact was the reason why we even came back in the game,” Mitchell remembers. “[Evan] just said in his mind, like, he wasn’t gonna let people take layups, go be on the boards.”

With Allen sidelined by an illness, Mobley gridlocked every possession by himself. His cat-and-mouse play against Utah’s pick-and-rolls was flawless. He stonewalled guards at the point of attack and vacuum-sealed the paint. Mobley’s arms poked away a couple of potential assists and blocked four shots. No string of possessions makes it easier to envision what may become a knack for normalizing greatness.

“Everybody that I’ve seen speak about Evan Mobley after they play him seems to say that the sky’s the limit,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy says. “And I can say that from where I sit, I don’t feel any differently than they do.”

On a team that has three All-Stars 26 or younger, Mobley is the Cavaliers’ most pivotal piece. Nothing is inevitable, but the day he’s also their best player is on the horizon.

Until then, Mobley sees himself as an X factor on this Cavs team. When he stays in attack mode and works to get everyone else involved, good things tend to happen. One of Cleveland’s coaches describes him as having a role player’s ego with the ability of an All-Star—one of the league’s rarest and most coveted commodities.

What’s seen today is the tip of an iceberg showing what he can be in his prime and what Mobley already is, limited statistically by the talented pieces around him. When teammates, coaches, friends, and family members are asked about Mobley’s future, almost all their answers are prefaced by a knowing smile. Some are careful not to elevate expectations further. Their words are qualified by caveats and provisions—“If he stays healthy …”—or a polite refusal to speculate.

But read the responses one after another, and they resemble a collection of blurbs you might see on the back of a mega-selling book’s jacket.

“All-NBA player,” Love says.

“If Evan puts it all together and bulks up?” Okongwu scrunches his face. “The sky is the limit.”

“He’s just done some things that I’ve seen that I’m like, man, this kid has a chance to be one of the best players to ever suit up,” says Simplis. “He has the tools to do it all. Honestly, shit, he can be the face of the league. It’s there for him.”

Such heights are lofty and imposing. Mobley is still just an NBA sophomore who’s focused on incremental progress; he refuses to plant long-term goals or set benchmarks that need to be passed. “I just do what’s best for me that day, and then whatever comes out of that, move on to the next thing. Get better,” he says. “That’s how I’ve lived my whole life, and I’ve gotten all the accolades I wanted.”

But for a moment, he allows himself to think ahead and imagine what’s possible a few years down the road, once he’s had enough time to master a complicated game few his age have ever made look so simple.

I ask Mobley what a 25-year-old version of himself looks like. He strokes his chin: “I would say dominant, confident.” In so many ways, those words already make sense for where he is. But from the perspective of a budding franchise cornerstone who truly believes anything he puts his mind to is possible, they’re even more appropriate evoking what he can ultimately become.

“I’ll go with those two right now.” Mobley allows a smirk, then nods his head. “Dominant and confident.”

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