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USC’s Isaiah Mobley finding his stride after rough start to college career

USC's Isaiah Mobley reacts after being fouled during a game against LSU in December. The freshman forward says he's in no rush when it comes to his development.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

The lanky freshman caught the ball on the block, stared up at the hulking, 250-pounder in his path, and for a split-second, he hesitated.

It was early in the second half of his first start in months, and Isaiah Mobley was well aware of the opportunity he’d been handed. Onyeka Okongwu, USC’s freshman phenom and leading scorer, was set to miss at least two games while in concussion protocol, and it was up to the 6-foot-10 Mobley, himself a former five-star recruit, to fill his massive shoes.

So as he stood on the edge of the paint last Thursday, considering the position of Washington’s own five-star freshman, Isaiah Stewart, the instincts that made Mobley one of the most coveted forwards in America kicked in. He pivoted to reset his position, then sent a soaring hook shot over Stewart’s outstretched arms and into the basket.

It was a smooth sequence in the final weeks of a less-than-smooth season for Mobley.

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When he signed with USC last spring, Mobley arrived as the top prospect in California and 20th overall in the nation — ranked five spots ahead of Okongwu. The two big men, who were AAU teammates, were expected to form a formidable frontcourt, with Okongwu patrolling underneath and Mobley stretching defenses to the three-point line.

But as Okongwu emerged as a potential NBA lottery pick, leading the team in points (16.4), rebounds (8.9), and blocks (three) per game, Mobley struggled to find his footing in the Pac-12 Conference. In December and January, he scored in double figures only once. On defense, bigger forwards took to bullying him in the paint.

USC’s defense keeps Washington State’s offense in check and Daniel Utomi scores a season-high 23 points in the Trojans’ 70-51 win.

The learning curve proved steeper than anyone expected. But where some top prospects have struggled to cope with such circumstances, Mobley has no trouble maintaining his perspective. As USC (19-7 overall, 8-5 Pac-12) heads to Colorado and Utah this weekend and the end of the season comes into focus, Mobley continues to take his freshman struggles in stride.

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He still has his sights set on the NBA, even if he knows that dream will be deferred at least one more season. Those closest to him contend that the best is still to come. But this season has reminded him that he can’t necessarily rush his way to stardom, either.

“I’m enjoying the process,” Mobley said. “I know it’s a process. It’s no rush. Everyone’s race is different.”

It didn’t help in Mobley’s case that soon after he arrived in the spring, he broke his foot. While he healed, he tried to study the playbook, learning as much as he could by osmosis. But the injury kept him off the court all summer. It wasn’t until USC’s intrasquad scrimmage, right before the season, that he was finally full-go.

“It definitely hurt my process,” Mobley said. “Everyone is lifting, and they go overseas. I learned from watching, but it’s different. I knew speed would be different at this level, but I didn’t get to lift like they did. … I kind of got thrown straight into the fire.”

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USC's Isaiah Mobley, left, tries to put up a shot over Oregon's Will Richardson on Jan. 23.
(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

It took some serious adjusting from there, as he came to grips with the college game. Mistakes, like picking up his pivot foot, were common. In brief flashes, Mobley showcased his potential, like when he scored 15 points in November against Marquette. But just as often, he seemed overmatched — like in USC’s first meeting with Stewart and the Huskies in January, when he made two of 13 shots.

Mobley’s fluctuating performance reminds USC coach Andy Enfield of another lanky big man who came to USC full of raw talent, before working his way to the NBA.

“He’s like Chimezie Metu,” Enfield said. “He came in here as a freshman, and he had to learn as well. Now he’s playing with the San Antonio Spurs. He went through his freshman year; he was streaky. He helped us [with] some games. He made some mistakes.”

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After averaging 6.4 points as a freshman, Metu jumped to nearly 15 as a sophomore. That’s the leap coaches are hoping Mobley can make between now and his second season.

“He has to get more physical,” says Eric Mobley, his father and a USC assistant. “He has to get in the weight room. He knows what he has to do in the summertime. We talk about it all the time, and he’s already starting that right now. He’s lifting more on his own.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s outstanding skills are one reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are fully capable of beating the Lakers or Clippers for the NBA title.

Next season, Isaiah says, he’ll have a better idea what to expect. Eric Mobley suspects his son could more confidently showcase his ball skills next season, perhaps even initiating the offense in transition. With his brother Evan, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, set to join the frontcourt, Isaiah wonders where their preternatural on-court chemistry might carry them.

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“Hopefully next year, you’ll get to experience it,” Mobley said.

That’s not to say he’s looking past this season. With the NCAA tournament approaching and the Trojans just one game out of the Pac-12 lead, USC would love to speed up Mobley’s timeline.

With Okongwu out, he offered a glimpse of what that leap might look like. After scoring just two points the weekend before, he totaled 19 points and 18 rebounds in wins against Washington and Washington State. For the season, Mobley is averaging 6.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.

Against Stewart, who has 30 pounds on him, Mobley looked as strong as he had all season. Enfield called his defensive effort “outstanding.”

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It’s unclear if Okongwu will be available this week. But after a slow start, his five-star counterpart is finally feeling comfortable enough with his place in the process.

“Adjusting, it makes a man out of you,” Mobley said. “That’s been good. I’ve learned a lot. When it’s my turn to step up now, I’ll know what to do.”


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