Column

Film Room: Isaiah Mobley has unlocked USC’s best basketball

The sophomore forward is peaking at the perfect time and has been crucial in the Trojans’ run to the Sweet Sixteen.

“Film Room” is a bi-weekly column by Aidan Berg that highlights player performances by breaking down basketball and football tape.

There have been plenty of times over the last two years when Isaiah Mobley could have felt left out.

Between being the odd big out of a 2019-20 starting lineup led by Onyeka Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic and watching his younger brother Evan dominate headlines as a projected top three pick, Isaiah hasn’t necessarily grabbed the spotlight in the way you’d assume a top 20 recruit would.

But if the sophomore forward has felt significant frustration, he hasn’t shown it. Instead, he has fulfilled a much-needed leadership role as a captain on a team with a lot of newcomers, always served as a positive presence and used his versatility to fill multiple roles on a team that exceeded its preseason expectations.

That versatility was on full display in the Trojans’ two NCAA Tournament games thus far. Mobley is averaging 16 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists per game in the tournament, but his impact goes beyond the numbers. Mobley has contributed what I like to call “separator services,” which is when a player consistently provides a skill that gives a team a distinct advantage over its opponent in that specific contest and helps his team pull away.

Over the course of the two games against Drake and Kansas, Mobley displayed four of these separator services; here’s how he helped the Trojans win both of those games.

USC had a distinct height advantage overall against Drake — the only Bulldog who could match up with Mobley’s 6-foot-10, 235-pound frame was junior forward Darnell Brodie, so one of the Mobleys or redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin always had an advantage inside. Isaiah consistently delivered on that edge, cashing in repeatedly by turning over his left shoulder for a righty hook shot.

It was clear Mobley was very comfortable shooting over the top of Drake’s smaller defenders, but the most crucial part is that he moved within the flow of the offense to set up shop right at the rim. Instead of settling for extended post-ups, he plants himself nearly under the basket; doing the work early allows him to take one dribble and elevate for the easy score.

Length was a clear advantage USC picked on in the first-round game, but you have to supplement that with other ways of scoring. Sometimes it’s just about seeking out your opportunities, as Isaiah does in the plays below.

There’s a reason announcers seemingly always point out when bigs get out in transition; it doesn’t always happen, and it creates more easy buckets for Mobley in the first and third plays because he outruns any bigs who could challenge his shot. And because he set up that interior presence, his defender allows enough space for him to slide out to the 3-point line for an open look in the second clip.

That deadeye shooting carried over into the first half of the second game, in which Mobley made all four of his 3-point attempts. In a half where USC took a somewhat shocking 40-21 lead over No. 3 seed Kansas, Mobley’s barrage was perhaps the most shocking and impactful surprise. Each basket felt like a prime Mike Tyson haymaker.

Perhaps part of why these shots all felt so staggering is because they were not your average spot up 3-pointers. One was a jab-and-pull, one was a step-in off a hang dribble after tracking down an offensive rebound, one came on a pseudo-flare screen and the final was a step-back where he got into his iso bag a little bit.

And keep in mind, this guy made 12 3-pointers all season coming into this game. He was lights out in a way Kansas never could have seen coming, and it was absolutely important to USC jumping out to such a big halftime lead.

But there’s a second half for a reason, and Mobley again switched it up to help the Trojans put the game away. This time he was a facilitator and, similar to his variety of 3-point makes, he did it in a few different, impressive ways.

Man, that fake dribble handoff into the pocket pass for the huge slam by Goodwin is impressive. When you realize the next clip, where he dribbles the ball up the court before dropping it off to redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy for the open transition three, came about 15 seconds later, you get an appreciation for just how many ways Mobley can impact the game.

The further USC goes, the more skills Mobley can put on display. Depending on the matchup, he can still add dominating the glass and holding down the fort as an inside-out defender to the list of ways he has helped his team win games in this tournament. One thing is for sure though: His brother isn’t the only Trojan with the ability to do just about everything on the court.

“Film Room” runs every other Thursday.