Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley lets his stellar play do the talking

Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley is defended by 76ers forward Tobias Harris in the post.
Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley, defended by 76ers forward Tobias Harris in the post, is averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks per game.
(Ron Schwane / Associated Press)

Evan Mobley is the first Cavaliers player shown during the pregame hype video, and his name the last introduced before tip-off.

A painting of his face is one of the first things fans see in the window of an arena gift store. His presence was one of the last things the Clippers felt in the final minutes in a recent loss here.

Cleveland remains among this NBA season’s biggest overachievers. Even with injuries exacting a toll, the possibility remains that the Cavaliers will double last season’s win total and reach the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James called this city home. They would not be here without J.B. Bickerstaff, a candidate for coach of the year, Kevin Love and his late-career renaissance, and the All-Star breakthroughs of guard Darius Garland and center Jarrett Allen.

Yet much of the buzz around the Cavaliers’ bright future begins and ends like their jumbotron displays and decibel-cranking introductions — with Mobley.


It is not normal for 7-footers to have his combination of fluidity and force, or for a rookie to earn a coach’s trust before his first NBA season starts. A star at Temecula Rancho Christian High and USC before being drafted third overall last summer, Mobley possesses all the above, and is now the front-runner to win rookie of the year.

“Most 19-, 20-year-olds when they come in the league, it takes them a little bit of time before you can be like, ‘You know what? We can count on this guy,’” Bickerstaff said. “And Evan almost immediately, when you watched him play pickup early in September, when you watched him go through preseason, there was a stability there you don’t typically see in rookies and I began to trust him almost immediately.”

LeBron James passed Karl Malone and moved into second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, but the Lakers fell 127-119 to the Wizards in Washington.

Mobley has repaid that trust, averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks per game while playing through injuries. The list of rookies who have averaged at least 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game is only eight players long, according to Basketball Reference, and includes Hall of Fame big men Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan along with the club’s most recent member, two-time champion Pau Gasol.

“I think he’ll be an All-Star next year,” said Etop Udo-Ema, the Compton Magic AAU coach.

Udo-Ema has long trusted Mobley, whom he has known since Mobley was 10 years old, could do all of this. To questions about Mobley’s placid temperament, he told talent evaluators to watch the tape. What he sees, Udo-Ema said, are pieces of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant, a versatility he credits to the work of Mobley’s father, Eric, a USC assistant, and high school coach Ray Barefield. Mobley’s mother, Nicol, who moved to Cleveland to be near Mobley this season, won a state basketball title in high school in San Diego.


“He just has too many natural and worked-on tools, his tool kit is just too diverse,” Udo-Ema said. “It’s too crazy. It’s going to be successful.”

When Barefield says he too is not in the slightest surprised by Mobley’s quick transition, he is thinking of plays such as a drive from the corner to the rim for a basket against the Clippers on March 14, part of his career-high 30-point performance. In high school, even after Mobley sprouted to 7 feet, he continued practicing his ballhandling in pick-and-rolls, drag screens and quick hitters.

As a freshman and sophomore he was used everywhere from shooting guard to center, and at all five positions as a junior and senior, when he was the front man on a 1-2-2 full-court press and joined NBA star Jrue Holiday as the only two-time winner of Gatorade’s California player of the year.

Evan Mobley defends San Ysidro’s Mikey Williams while playing for Rancho Christian High.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I know that’s a lot of pressure for him,” Barefield said, “but we’ve had conversations in high school about going to the Hall of Fame.”

Yet there is a gulf between a prospect’s promise and his professional production, with Barefield acknowledging that where a player lands in the draft can mold his career. It was why when Udo-Ema left the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas last August, he was even more convinced Mobley would make that jump after seeing the lack of restraints Cleveland placed on the rookie, allowing Mobley to operate the offense out of the high post and on the perimeter, similar to how he had been used with the Magic and in high school.

“The way they were using him, I knew he’s gonna blow up,” Udo-Ema said.


In 2020, while still in high school, Mobley acknowledged in a story about his rise to the country’s top prep player that basketball “had to grow on me,” and questions about how his reserved personality would fit into the rougher NBA stuck to him even as he separated himself in his lone USC season, in which he was chosen the Pac-12’s top freshman, best defender and most valuable player.

It was the biggest question that followed Mobley. To his coaches, the answer was obvious, “once you understand what makes him tick,” Bickerstaff said. Udo-Ema still is incredulous at the concern, saying that those who equate toughness with outward emotion have missed the point.

Barefield had seen Mobley question teammates’ intensity during practices. Barefield gauged Mobley’s desire to work during conditioning at Temecula’s Butterfield Stage Park. When the workout appeared over, Barefield prompted Mobley to imagine an NBA team was calling for a workout the following morning. The 7-footer took off, and eventually sprinted nearly twice as many hills as Barefield’s players typically finish.

Evan Mobley, right, battles Sierra Canyon's Brandon Boston Jr. for rebounding position while playing for Rancho Christian.
Evan Mobley, right, battles Sierra Canyon’s Brandon Boston Jr. for rebounding position while playing for Rancho Christian High during a showcase event in Pasadena on Jan. 11, 2020.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“He cares to be great,” Barefield said. “I’m telling you, he’s very unselfish and he’s gonna make the right basketball play and sometimes that can be confusing because they want to see all this, you know, ridiculous stuff. Not saying the NBA, but people, fans sometimes want to see somebody, you know, puff their chest and, you know, hit their chest and, you know, do all this rolling and all that, but they just don’t know Evan.

“I remember a game when he was very young, like ninth or 10th grade, and I said, ‘Evan, I can tell you really have some bad intentions about to happen right now.’ … And all I saw him do is kind of look me in the eye and just start nodding his head. He’s like ninth grade, and I’m like, wow, like he’s serious. I mean, he’s blocked nine, 10 shots, dunks everything around the rim, and there’s no reaction. You know, he’s not fist-pumping after it.

“So you have to know Evan, to know that the even keel, that’s what’s actually scary. Because he’s not so high, so low, he’s consistent.”

Against the Clippers on March 14, while playing center with Allen sidelined because of injury, Mobley scored a career-high 30 points and left Clippers players afterward describing him as more aggressive than during the teams’ first matchup early in the season.

“He’s been aggressive enough to shut up all those guys in the league,” Udo-Ema said.


In the five-minute overtime, Mobley blocked an Ivica Zubac shot so forcefully that the 7-foot Zubac fell to the court, stole a Nicolas Batum pass, dunked off an assist from Garland, assisted on teammate Isaac Okoro’s layup and, with 47 seconds left and the Cavaliers leading by eight, corralled a rebound that all but secured Cleveland’s victory.

Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley elevates above the basket to block a shot by Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley blocks a shot by Clippers center Ivica Zubac during a game last week in Cleveland.
(Ron Schwane / Associated Press)

“It’s so many different ways that he impacts winning that he continues to grow on you every night because you see something different,” Bickerstaff said. “And his mentality never changes. The only thing that he does, and I’ve said this before, is he just tries to figure out how to help this team win. And it’s never one time been about him, it’s never been ‘I need more touches, I need more plays called for me, I need this certain matchup, I need to do this.’”

Even the two blocks against the Clippers that weren’t credited to Mobley, because of a goaltending call and a foul, had an effect. Clippers guard Terance Mann — a player so confident he dunked over defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert twice last season — acknowledged that Mobley, whom he called a “great player,” had affected the Clippers’ aggression around the rim.

Opponents have shot 51.6% within six feet on shots defended by Mobley, a number that leads all qualifying rookies.

“You don’t see a lot of rookies out there doing what he is doing, especially at that position,” Mann said.

All of it has left Mobley in the front of this rookie class, with his supporters contending this will not be the last time he is compared to the greats.