Why Evan Mobley is the top prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft

NBA Draft prospect Evan Mobley (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
NBA Draft prospect Evan Mobley (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports) /

Evan Mobley is the top prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft. 

Most player comparisons these days are met with eye rolls and besmirchment. But witness the brilliant absurdity that is Evan Mobley on the basketball court, and all of a sudden the name Mozart (yes, *that* Mozart) doesn’t seem completely far-fetched.

The numbers back it up. Since 2008, only six college freshmen have registered a box plus-minus (BPM) of 12.0 or higher in a season. The top two (Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis) were regarded as once-in-a-generation players who lived up to the billing. The next three, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, and Karl-Anthony Towns, came up through the ranks as elite prospects and proceeded to produce at extraordinary clips in their one-and-done stops.

And then there’s Mobley — the projected No. 3 — who comes with similar pedigree, led his Southern Cal team (predicted to finish 6th in the conference) to the Elite Eight; all while staying on the floor longer than anyone else in that group. Simply put, it was one of the most impressive seasons by a freshman in recent memory.

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So how come Mobley is (seemingly) not in the running for 1.1? The presence of Cade Cunningham has a lot to do with it, but as outlined here, I don’t view his case completely closed-and-shut as the general public does. Performance in college doesn’t always translate to the NBA; and with the league trending small, drafting a seven-footer early has become fraught with peril. Just ask the Warriors if they’d go for a mulligan on last year.

There’s also the (unfounded) concerns about Mobley’s passion for the game — not every psycho-competitor is wired like Kevin Garnett (see: Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson). Mobley is the best prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft, and here’s why:

Not your traditional big man

Whether it’s Tiago Splitter, Ivica Zubac, or name your slow-footed five; benching the token center has become an annual playoff rite of passage for squads with championship aspirations (unless you’re Scott Brooks). Usually, there are two main reasons for this:

1. The center can’t defend in space in the pick-and-roll

Think Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter. Pretty much every great team boasts a deadly off-the-dribble shooter, which makes mobility on the perimeter essential.

2. The center gets exposed on offense

Think Rudy Gobert – one-trick ponies who are strictly play-finishers and can only function in a singular context (i.e. screening and rolling). Once opponents scheme these opportunities away, all that’s left is a bystander clogging the paint.

Mobley clears these two benchmarks with flying colors. He’s nearly at the Bam Adebayo/Draymond Green-level in terms of guarding ball-handlers; to the point where it’s a mismatch for him. While USC usually stationed Mobley near the rim, the ground he can cover at a split-second’s notice is truly breathtaking. Offensively, Mobley has an intriguing, multifaceted skillset:

"“Modern skill set. Great hands. Has the touch and mechanics to knock down NBA 3s with regularity in time. Comfortable in midrange spots. Smooth handle and excellent passer with either hand.” – Mike Schmitz of ESPN"

The low-hanging fruit

This leads to our next point. Imagine, for a moment, that Mobley’s development completely stalls due to something unforeseen. Even in this doomsday scenario, he’d still be a valuable NBA player. Athletic seven-footers with a great instincts and the ability to switch on defense, plus the capacity to either rim-run or facilitate on offense don’t grow on trees. Mobley is already this good, and yet there’s so much more room for improvement — which is a scary thought. Let’s dive into some of these areas:

Adding strength:

At just 215 pounds, Mobley’s skinny frame is a prime focus among the skeptics. His high hips/center of gravity make it easier for players to dislodge him with physicality. Even at the college level, he was prone to post-ups and deep seals – this is an instant bucket in the league. Forget the Embiids and Jokics of the world…how is Mobley going to handle your run-of-the-mill bruiser? It’s a valid question, which is why Mobley’s probably destined to play heavy minutes at the four as a rookie. We’ve seen this predicament with another young, tantalizing big man in Jaren Jackson Jr. His defensive rebound rate (18.9%) was somehow lower than Michigan State Jaren, too – a red flag.

While analysts will cite the subpar post-up numbers (0.712 PPP), I don’t view his svelteness to be as worrisome on the offensive end. Yes, added strength will turn moments like this into AND-1s. It will do wonders for his faulty screen-setting. At the same time, Mobley moves with the fluidity of a wing, yet possesses an unblockable flurry of baby-hooks and leaners. How much of a power game does he really need? This brings us to our next topic…

Aggression as a scorer:

Mobley processes the game at an extraordinarily high level – a credit to his father Eric, and all of those years playing up with his brother (and Onyeka Okongwu) on the Compton Magic. But sometimes he’s out there thinking too much rather than winning with his immense gifts. In theory, this is the right play – drawing multiple defenders off the UCLA cut to set up an open corner 3. In practice, however, a superstar picks up two easy points and leaves the opposing team demoralized. I do appreciate the team-oriented approach, but this is practically a layup for him. Go out there and dominate, Evan!

Shooting touch:

All of these shots — the baby hooks, the leaners, the jab-steps from the elbow, the Amar’e jumpers out of the short roll — are going to be there all day for Mobley, even against NBA competition. He’s just too quick off the ground, with an Anthony Davis tridactyl-like reach and extension. Now the key for Evan Mobley is becoming automatic in those money zones — turning him into a deadly force in the half-court.

I’m a believer that he’ll eventually get there. Seven-footers don’t take movement threes without confidence in their shooting ability (and a good amount of underlying touch). Aside from a slight imbalance in his lower body; Mobley’s mechanics are sound and free-flowing. His free-throw percentage of 69.4% at Southern Cal was respectable for a 19-year old big man.

This is a surefire avenue for Mobley to mature as a proficient scorer. Once that happens, his prowess for facilitating will sing even more fervently, which transitions to the next point…


Mobley is a very willing and incisive passer, but I wouldn’t classify him as a great one just yet. He’ll throw some that are off-target, or without the requisite velocity to traverse the width of the court. Can he improve this? Seems like a pretty simple fix with experience and drill-work, especially when he’s talented enough to toss left-handed Manu passes. (Counterpoint: Josh Smith)

Defensive motor:

Ever since his senior year at Rancho Christian — when he was surpassed by both Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green in RSCI — Mobley’s intensity/motor has been a subject for discussion. Most of it can be attributed to boredom, but I still feel there is an ounce of truth to this (at least in the college tape). He’s doesn’t necessarily go out of his way for hustle plays, nor does he change ends of the floor particularly hard. He rarely boxes out — a major culprit for the 18.9% defensive rebound rate. And while Mobley’s ability to avoid fouling is remarkable, you’d like to see him touch opponents up just a bit more.

I’d expect he’ll rev it up in the NBA – the first challenge of his basketball life. We witnessed a similar occurrence with LaMelo Ball last season. It’s still a factor, nonetheless, as Mobley plays a very controlled, cerebral style on both ends. Can he summon another gear or two? Time will tell.

Putting it all together

What is Mobley’s floor? There is no universe where he isn’t an impactful defensive player. Even if his offensive game substantially disappoints, he’ll still be an adequate play-finisher – either as a roll-man or spotting up. For context, the Cavaliers recently traded a first-round pick for Jarrett Allen’s restricted free-agency rights. One of the chief takeaways from the Milwaukee championship run: all things being equal, size wins out.

On the other hand, Mobley’s ceiling, or his 75th-90th percentile outcomes, is completely different – something we haven’t really seen before in this league. There’s a reason his high school coach evoked Mozart; the game just comes that easily to Mobley. And there’s so many ways for him to grow, so much meat left on the bone. Will Mobley develop these aspects of his game? We’ll see, but I’m betting on the basketball genius to figure it out.

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The potential is just too special to pass up, in my opinion, even for Cade Cunningham – a stellar prospect in his own right. Mobley *could* break the sport in a way that’s impossible to envision. I just can’t wait to watch his career unfold (even if it’s in Cleveland).