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USC’s Evan Mobley out to prove in NCAA tournament he’s ready for NBA spotlight

USC’s Evan Mobley dunks against Utah’s Branden Carlson during the first half of the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
USC’s Evan Mobley dunks against Utah’s Branden Carlson during a quarterfinal game in the Pac-12 tournament.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Evan Mobley stood with his back to the basket a week ago, isolated on a single Utah defender, a rare moment of solace in a normally packed paint. The 7-foot freshman glanced over his left shoulder, considering his next move.

From an early age, the budding star big man had been conditioned to make the extra pass, to lift up his teammates, to make the smart, selfless play, first and foremost.

But over an otherwise stellar season at USC, where he commanded constant double teams, those instincts had every so often led him and the Trojans’ offense astray. Periodically, coaches had to remind him of his capacity to dominate. They needed him to be more aggressive, they told him. To take over, like they knew he could.

It’s a message Mobley has heard throughout his basketball upbringing. But in that moment, in the first few minutes of his first and only Pac-12 tournament appearance, Mobley needed no reminder. He spun to his right, darting around a flat-footed Utah defender with ease. He took one step, lifted off, and slammed home a one-handed dunk.

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The basket was part of 52 points Mobley scored over a statement-making stretch in Las Vegas, as he took over in a way he hadn’t all season, scoring at will and swatting anything within reach on the defensive end.

Over two games, Mobley left little room for doubt as to why NBA scouts see him as a consensus top-five pick in the upcoming draft. But now, as those scouts zero in on the makeshift bubble in Indianapolis and Mobley embarks on what’s likely to be the final run of his brief collegiate career, all eyes are on the Trojans’ supernova.

If USC has any hope of advancing past the first weekend of the tournament for the first time in 14 years, it’ll be on its star forward’s shoulders. The Trojans, seeded sixth in the West Region, play No. 11 Drake on Saturday.

“I just know it’s a big stage and big players have to step up to the challenge,” Mobley, who leads the team in scoring (16.8 points a game) and rebounds (8.6), said this week. “So I just try to step up to the challenge, do everything I possibly could to help my team win. Every game, from now on especially, could be our last game, and I’m gonna treat it that way and really just try to go all out.”

That urgency hasn’t always come so naturally for Mobley, prompting some scouts to wonder if he’s a natural top option on an NBA team. His skills are undeniable — an East Coast college scout told The Times “he doesn’t really have a weakness.”

Another college scout from the West Coast told The Times that the only questions he’s heard about Mobley center on “basically heart and motor and toughness.”

“He’s so unselfish. He does the right thing. He’s not going to force it. Sometimes, he’s selfless to a fault.”

— Ray Barefield, Evan Mobley’s high school coach

“If he figures it out, as far as playing hard and all that, he can be like Anthony Davis,” the scout said. “But that’s a huge question because he’s not that tough, he’s not that physical. He doesn’t play as hard as he should right now. But he’s talented as hell.”

Those closest to Mobley bristle at any such suggestion. Sure, he’s the quiet, reserved type. Never too high, never too low.

“He makes it look effortless, and people say he’s not playing hard,” his father and USC assistant Eric Mobley says. “Well, it’s easy for him, you know? That’s a special gift.”

That natural calm, they believe, has been misunderstood by nitpicking scouts.

“He’s not that outspoken or emotional, and it makes it hard for people to read him,” says Compton Magic founder Etop Udo-Ema, who coached Mobley during AAU. “I get that. But I know Evan. Evan has a trigger.”

Still, at times, that trigger went long stretches without being pulled this season. In his first meeting with Utah, he didn’t attempt a field goal. In six other games, Mobley took seven or fewer shots from the field. Often, that was due to the double teams he routinely demanded. But not always.

USC coach Andy Enfield talks with forward Evan Mobley.
USC Andy Enfield talks with forward Evan Mobley during a game against Brigham Young on Dec. 1, 2020 in Uncasville, Conn.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

After an especially passive performance from Mobley in a January loss at Oregon State, USC coach Andy Enfield challenged the freshman to assert himself. He responded by averaging more than 20 points and 11 rebounds over his next three games.

“There have been games throughout the season where we’ve had to coach him and motivate him like everyone else,” Enfield said. “We needed more from him. We demanded it. And he responded.”

Ray Barefield remembers similar conversations with Mobley, who sprouted 11 inches between eighth and ninth grade. When he arrived at Rancho Christian School in Temecula to play for Barefield, he was still a point guard in a gangly center’s body. It would take time for him to grow into the dominant big man prospect he’d become.

So Barefield manufactured opportunities, keeping touch counts to ensure Mobley was constantly involved. Mobley, a self-described perfectionist, was still reluctant to make mistakes.

“Sometimes it was difficult to get him to make sure he’s the focal point,” Barefield said. “He’s so unselfish. He does the right thing. He’s not going to force it. Sometimes, he’s selfless to a fault.”

How that might translate at the NBA level depends somewhat on the team that takes him and the supporting cast around him. But as far as Udo-Ema sees it, Mobley’s willingness to adapt is perhaps his greatest asset at the NBA level. He’s like a ball of clay, Udo-Ema says, capable of being molded however his next team sees fit.

“There’s no ceiling with his development. He could be anything. He could be KD. He could be Giannis,” Udo-Ema said, referencing NBA stars Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “He could be a mix. Who knows what he’s going to develop into, depending on where he goes and who’s coaching him. But he really is a blank canvas.”

When LaVar Ball moved to Chino Hills to start a family, he found a planned community that matched his own ambition. A fascinating relationship ensued.

That was how Eric Mobley intended to develop him, starting his own AAU team in order to ensure Mobley and his brother, Isaiah, played every possible position. He first taught them how to dribble as toddlers, bribing them with dollar bills if they could recite their ABC’s while dribbling with their off hand.

The training stuck. No one doubts that Evan Mobley is one of the most skilled big men to come out of college basketball in years, capable of initiating offense on his own if necessary. When double teams slowed him down early in the season, Enfield opted to give Mobley the ball farther out on the perimeter, where he could pull up from mid-range or drive past slow-footed bigs who ventured to defend him.

Still, his father knew he had more to give. So Eric Mobley sat his son down last week ahead of the Pac-12 tournament and showed him film of him taking control at Rancho Christian. Just as a reminder.

“I told him, ‘You have this ability, go ahead and do it,’ ” Eric Mobley said. “We need you to shoot more. Eight shots is not doing it. Hey, go for 35. Carry the team if you have to.”

He’ll have the chance this weekend to prove it on the biggest stage of his basketball career. USC’s tournament hopes hinge on it.

“I feel the spotlight on me,” Mobley said. “But I’m just trying to stay focused and ready for the games.”

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this story.


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