Column

Film Room: Evan Mobley is a special modern big man

The USC product has a blend of length, athleticism and skill that teams dream of in today’s NBA.

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

Evan Mobley has a legitimate case as the best USC men’s basketball player ever.

That may sound surprising given he only spent one year with the program, but it speaks to his incredible talent. In averaging 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.9 blocks per game during the 2020-21 season, Mobley joined Anthony Davis as the only Power Five players ever to win their conference’s Player, Defensive Player and Freshman of the Year awards. He also led USC to just its second Elite Eight appearance since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

It also might be shocking to hear that Mobley should be much better as a professional than he was in college. This is due to the modernized skill set he brings to the big man position. Mobley is either already proficient or in the process of developing virtually every trait that NBA teams covet in center prospects, which is why he is a projected top-three pick despite the league’s deemphasis on the position in the last decade.

Mobley has put himself in the discussion for top player in a loaded draft, along with do-it-all perimeter players in Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. Let’s run through Mobley’s game to see why he is held in such high regard.

Strengths

The foundation for Evan Mobley’s appeal in the NBA is his combination of length and athleticism. Standing 7 feet tall and weighing 215 pounds, Mobley is a beanpole (we’ll address his lack of strength later), but he makes up for it with extraordinary movement skills for a man his size. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a big man as fluid as Mobley, and combining that ability with his 7-foot-4 wingspan gives him a physical advantage over most opposing big men, both vertically and horizontally.

The easy extension and explosion seen on these plays is no joke. Whether it’s stretching out for a finish at the basket or quickly elevating for a block well above the rim, Mobley is capable of plays that make you jump out of your seat.

Those are the plays that flash when you flick on his highlights, but Mobley is a steady and impactful player because of his range of abilities. He is foremost a defensive problem because of his versatility on that end. Mobley’s fluidity allows him to guard one-through-five as effectively as any big man who has entered the draft in recent memory, and he’s very capable of switching between big men and guard defensive responsibilities in the blink of an eye.

Look at how he stays in front of guard Alfonso Plummer through multiple moves before seamlessly transitioning to disrupt center Branden Carlson’s shot in the first clip against Utah, or how quickly he moves between stopping Colorado’s D’Shawn Schwartz in transition and blocking Jeriah Horne’s 3-point attempt in the final play. Mobley simply knows how to defend at all levels of the court.

Mobley was one of the best interior defenders in the nation as just a freshman. USC finished the season ranked sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency after ranking outside the top 80 in six of head coach Andy Enfield’s first seven seasons at USC, and a big part of that was Mobley’s knack for affecting shots at the rim.

Mobley finished with the most blocks per game of any Power Five player not only because of his length and athleticism, but because of his timing and second jump ability, both of which are on full display above. The guy eats up shots at the rim, and even when he doesn’t get a hand on an attempt, he almost always affects it.

Mobley was a little jumpy and hyperactive at the beginning of his college career, but he adapted quickly and displayed impressive defensive awareness and instincts. He’s great to have at the back line of your defense because he sees the whole court and knows when to help. This awareness serves him particularly well in the pick-and-roll — an integral part of today’s NBA — as you can see in multiple clips below where he hovers between the ball-handler and the roller before committing once he knows who’s taking the shot.

Mobley is similarly versatile offensively; according to Synergy, he took 18% of his shots out of rolls, 15% out of post-ups, 15% out of spot-ups, 12% out of cuts/dump-offs, 11% on offensive rebounds, 9% out in transition and 7% out of pure isolation. Right now, I think he is at his best attacking out of the mid- or high-post, where he can use his length and good shooting touch to score over defenders around the basket.

Perhaps Mobley’s most exciting NBA offensive skill is his ability as a roller. Not only is he a significant lob threat because of his physical advantages, but he is also very capable of catching the ball on the short roll and creating a shot.

There are a few plays from those clips that show how smoothly Mobley plays the game. In the clip against Arizona State, he displays great patience after catching the pass on the short roll by taking a gather dribble and pump-faking to shed the double-team before elevating for the left-handed dunk. Against Drake, he shows some impressive hands by catching a pass thrown behind his head and springing into the floater in one movement.

It is very hard to defend a big man who can hurt you from all levels of the pick-and-roll because he puts you in a “pick your poison” situation. You can’t take everything away, so either the ball-handler gets an open shot, the big man gets a good look or you run an extra man at the roller and he finds the open man. Mobley can operate beautifully in that roll.

That passing aspect is what so often trips up big men who aren’t accustomed to making decisions with the ball, but that’s not the case with Mobley. He and his brother Isaiah learned guard skills under their father and USC assistant coach Eric; Evan said his dad actually taught him those guard skills before big man moves.

It paid off. Mobley may not be the passer Nikola Jokic is or the ball-handler Kevin Durant is — both of whom are 7-footers who dominate with those traditionally guard abilities — but he does flash some high-level reads and dribble moves.

Mobley has good vision out of the post, but that pass fake, light penetration and dump off to Drew Peterson against UC Irvine shows that he can make plays for others from the perimeter as well. On the ball-handling side, Mobley demonstrates the control and burst to attack unbalanced defenders. I also love that spin move he uses to get into the middle of the lane to elevate for a shot.

One result of Mobley’s perimeter-oriented upbringing is that he’s incredibly ambidextrous for a 19-year-old big, in both his handle and shooting. You really have to defend everything when he’s around the paint.

USC was not a particularly up-tempo team, ranking 209th in the country in team possessions per game, and I think this hid some of Mobley’s ability on the break. With his speed and fluidity, Mobley should be a force as a transition rim-runner, but he also displayed some enticing ability to pull down the rebound, fly upcourt and make a play.

Weaknesses

Most of the problems I perceive with Mobley’s game come from his lack of physical strength. Given his skinny frame, I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to address these concerns fully, but he must get as strong as possible without sacrificing the athleticism that makes him so unique.

I believe Mobley plays a bit stronger than his frame suggests, and he doesn’t have the motor concerns that some other skinny big men have had, but he still gets pushed around too easily. Stronger centers such as Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis and Colorado’s Evan Battey stuffed him under the rim at times, making Mobley susceptible to giving up easy looks at the basket, offensive rebounds and desperation fouls.

We’ve shown that Mobley can hold his own in the post, but it gets tougher when you get to the NBA. He could absolutely get battered by low-post savants such as Jokic and Joel Embiid — both of whom would have somewhere in the ballpark of 60 pounds on Mobley — despite the problems his length would give them.

Perhaps the most concerning play above was the one in which UCLA’s Johnny Juzang shed Mobley with his shoulder to create space for the floater and draw the foul. If Juzang can do that, downhill drivers such as LeBron James and Luka Doncic will have a field day if they can get into Mobley’s body.

Rebounding is probably the most crucial area where Mobley’s physical weakness shows up. His rebounding percentages (the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor) put him well behind the best bigs of today who played college ball as well as many top 10 big selections from the last five drafts. Perhaps this should be attributed to Mobley playing on one of the tallest teams in the country, but it is a question he will have to answer at the next level.

Mobley’s strength issues can also show themselves in his post game on offense, particularly when he tries to back his defender down.

Mobley’s inability to bully his defender keeps him from getting to his spot and can force him into jail, as it does in the final play above when he gets stuck on the baseline and throws an ill-advised pass that gets intercepted.

One of the gripes I’ve heard about Mobley is that he doesn’t enforce his will offensively enough. Games such as his first performance against Utah, when he scored three points and officially attempted zero field goals, raised questions about his “killer instinct.”

The first reason I don’t buy this as a major problem is that Mobley showed he is perfectly willing to take over when he needs to — he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds in the Pac-12 Tournament against Utah and Colorado, two of the more physical teams USC played.

The second is that I don’t believe that is how Mobley should be used anyway. He shouldn’t be a guy you throw it to in the post and tell “Go get us a bucket.” He should be given as many opportunities to play in space as possible so that he can take advantage of his fluidity and guard skills. I like that Mobley is unselfish and always tries to make the right play; I think it will make whatever team drafts him better as a whole.

If you let Mobley operate as an offensive hub who uses his movement skills, passing and ball-handling to create shots for himself and others and allow him to be opportunistic as an interior offensive presence (rim-rolling, penetration, etc.), the team will be much better served than if you ask him to be Hakeem Olajuwon in the post.

Swing Skill: Shooting

To be the “perfect modern big man,” you have to be able to shoot. If you’re not going to be an unstoppable low-post scorer like Embiid, you have to bring some other difference-making scoring skill to the table, and in today’s NBA, that is most likely shooting.

Mobley doesn’t shoot particularly well — yet. He shot 30% from three on 40 attempts and 69.4% from the free-throw line on 193 attempts. However, there is reason to believe Mobley can improve and become a good shooter.

The first is his solid touch. It doesn’t always show up, but there are plenty of examples of the ball lightly bouncing around the rim and into the basket on those mid-range jumpers. He has the capability to do that more consistently.

The second is his shooting form. Maybe it’s just because they have somewhat similar body types, but it reminds me of Mikal Bridges’ shot when he came out of Villanova: solid square up, good high release, but with a slight hitch that hurts his consistency.

Bridges struggled for most of his first two seasons with the Suns, but tireless work to iron out that hitch has improved his efficiency. After shooting 33.5% and 36.1% from three as a rookie and sophomore, Bridges is shooting 40.8% this season despite elevating his number of attempts by nearly two per game over last season.

I see a similar path for Mobley. NBA shooting coaches will help him get rid of that hitch so that his shot is much more simple and replicable. From there, he just needs more reps to build muscle memory from NBA 3-point range. He already has a good mid-range shot and has some nice examples draining long-range jumpers after finding his spot either in the pick-and-roll or while moving within the flow of the offense.

That relocation to the corner out of the post-up in the final play against Utah is an exciting indication for his future as a shooter. Mobley’s not going to come in and be a 3-point marksman right away, but he is certainly capable of solidifying the skill that will unlock his “unicorn” potential down the line.

And given all the other abilities Mobley has showcased, that lofty term is certainly in the cards once he fully develops.

“Film Room” usually ran every other Thursday.