Evan Mobley is currently projected to go #3 overall, as he is a fluid and mobile 7’0 that offers a bit of everything.
The areas where he stands out in particular are with his passing and defense. He reads the defense very well, and every time he is double teamed he quickly swings it to the open shooter. And he was rim protector for the 6th best defense in the NCAA, and did so with an unprecedented ability to avoid fouls.
Let’s take a look at how his passing, rim protection, and foul rates compare to past top 5 big prospects at a similar age:
|Jaren Jackson Jr.||18.3||9.3||0.63||14.3||5.9||0.95|
Mobley is in the conversation for best passing big of the top 20 years, as he only gets edged out in assist rate by sophomores Horford and Bogut, and atones with a better assist to turnover ratio.
He does not have quite the block rate as most of the stud rim protectors, but atones with his lack of fouling. The only prospect who showed a better ability to block without fouling is Anthony Davis, who was a clear top 3 prospect of the past 20 years.
Davis was also younger with better steals and rebounds and more explosive athleticism, so Mobley isn’t on his level of generational prospect. But he holds up well when compared to everybody else on the list.
Among the other prospects who were able to accumulate more blocks than fouls: Greg Oden, Emeka Okafor, and Tyrus Thomas, none were close to Mobley as a passer or a shooter.
Mobley gives some of his goodness back by having a thin frame and being weaker on the glass than everybody on this list other than JJJ. But you can see he has some unique strengths to make him exciting
Andy Enfield’s tenure at USC has been decent but unspectacular. He was hired in 2013-14, and after two rebuilding seasons he was able to get the Trojans perennially to the NCAA tournament bubble, ranging from #49 to #82 kenpom ranking among D1 teams for 5 seasons in a row. And the 20-21 season appeared to be no different, as they lost their top 4 players ranked by win shares from the 19-20 season with Evan’s brother Isaiah as the only decent returner. They replaced everybody else with a glut of ordinary low and mid-major role players, and their perimeter creation appeared to be sorely lacking.
But it worked for a couple of reasons. They had the 6th best defense in NCAA, in large part because having two intelligent bigs makes for a strong defensive foundation. And they overperformed their #24 block rate with the #2 defensive 2P%– a sign that Mobley’s good but non-elite block rate may understate his rim protection. Similar to Tim Duncan and Andrew Bogut, he prioritizes forcing difficult shots over trying to send every opponent shot attempt into the stands.
They also had the 14th best offense, which was particularly shocking for a team with such pedestrian perimeter talent. But mid-major transfers Drew Peterson and Tahj Eaddy were able to sustain similar usage and assist rates as they did for their mid-major teams in 19-20 with a slight bump in efficiency for Peterson and a huge jump for Eaddy.
This is incredibly rare as most mid-major transfers see a significant drop in offensive output when they move up to high major. Peterson and Eaddy deserve credit for improving, but this level of performance likely would not be possible without two intelligent passing big men to make life easier for the guards and wings.
Consequently, USC ended up with by far the best team in Andy Enfield’s career, finishing as the #6 kenpom team and making a surprising elite 8 run.
Everybody talks about how bad Cade Cunningham’s teammates are, but every half-decent computer model rated Oklahoma State as the better team entering the season as he had relatively decent high major teammates. Evan Mobley was the top prospect who had the clearly most flawed cast, yet he was able to carry them much further than expected by several orders of magnitude.
The most obvious comp to Mobley is Chris Bosh, who shares a similar physical profile and looks like he could be Mobley’s biological father:
Bosh was 9 months younger and showed slightly better rebounding and shooting (also attempted 1.9 3’s per 40 vs 1.4 for Mobley), but otherwise Mobley looks good with better passing, rim protection, and slightly better usage and efficiency.
Mobley is right on the cusp where he can maybe develop into a good shooter or maybe not, and this will obviously make a significant swing on his NBA value. But Bosh never became a reliable NBA shooter until his final few seasons. Mobley’s passing and rim protection advantages are so significant, if they were both in this draft he would likely deserve the edge as the better pick.
It’s close enough such that it’s not clear whether his median outcome will be better or worse than Bosh. And when that can be said about a comparison to a hall of fame player, that’s a good sign that Mobley is a worthy #1 overall.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Another recent skinny big prospect who has some parallels is Jaren Jackson Jr.
They are similar rebounding, and JJJ is the better shooter with better FT% and a higher 3PA rate of which he made 39.6% while being more than a full year younger. JJJ had more blocks, but Mobley had a small fraction of the foul rate, fouling 2.1 times per 40 compared to 5.9 for JJJ..
Personally I was extremely high on JJJ, and with his youthful upside it would have been difficult to take Mobley ahead of him. Especially since prospects with NBA fathers tend to out perform their draft stock, and Jaren Sr. outperformed himself going from undrafted free agent to useful rotation player for the championship Spurs.
Jaren Jr.’s rebounding, assist, and foul rates were all flags, but it made sense that he should improve his rebounding as he filled out and improve his assist and foul rates with repetition and experience, but none of that has happened.
In part this may be attributed to being hampered by injuries, and he at least showed an improved rebounding rate this past season. And he is not a bust by any stretch, as he is still a useful 21 year old player with plenty of upside to grow.
Mobley at least offers a safer and more polished prospect. He won’t be the same shooter as Jaren, but his superior passing and ability to avoid fouls are nice features that should make his NBA translation more seamless.
It is difficult to draw any strong conclusions from Jackson thus far, but he is a bit of a cautionary tale to show that Mobley is not a lock to be a stud– especially if he struggles to rebound in the NBA as much as Jackson has.
Embiid is much bigger and bulkier than Mobley, but they both have the coordination of ballerinas which is especially enticing in a talented 7 footer:
Embiid’s major strength advantage shows in his vastly superior rebound rate, and he is no doubt the better raw talent than Mobley in a vaccum.
But Mobley makes up for this by being better at playing under control, with a significantly lower turnover (3.9 vs 5.9) and foul rate (3.1 vs 8.5) per 100. This is what him makes such a rare prospect– he is both physically capable of moving under control, and mentally capable of playing under control. In tandem this lends itself to elite levels of efficiency and positive team level impact.
Assuming full health, it is close between the two. But given Embiid’s significant health flags, Mobley would be the easy choice on draft night.
Tim Duncan/Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is more physically similar to Mobley, but Duncan is the one with the college sample thus he will be the one who gets compared. Amazingly, Duncan was the same age as a junior as Mobley was as a freshman, so let’s compare that season, as it relatively falls in line with his overall college trajectory. Stats per 40 minutes:
It’s stunning how similar these guys are. Timmy has a bit more post game and edges out scoring volume at 20.6 pts per 40 vs 19.3 for Mobley. But Mobley compensates with better 2P%, lower TOV, and slightly better shooting.
Their assist, steal, block, free throw, and foul rates are more or less identical, and really the only area where Duncan stands out is due to his superior rebounding. In tandem with his thin frame, it is Mobley’s one nagging flaw and it is difficult to assess how much it matters.
On the bright side, Duncan never improved as a shooter, making 69.6% FT and 17.9% 3P in his NBA career. If Mobley develops into a real NBA 3 point threat, he can help atone for his lack of beef and rebounding.
The Rebounding Conundrum
Mobley’s only flaw is his thin frame and lack of rebounding, and there are different ways to look at it.
The downside is that Jaren Jackson Jr. posted similar NCAA rebound rates to Mobley, but has been an anemic 4.6%/14.4% O/D rebounder in the NBA thus far. If Mobley proves to be as soft inside as JJJ, he could be disappointing.
The upside is the two recent USC bigs to make the NBA have seamlessly translated their NCAA rebounding to the pros in limited NBA samples thus far: Onyeka Okongwu 12.4/18.4 NCAA to 12.0/17.9 NBA (including playoffs), Chimezie Metu 7.8/18.6 NCAA to 7.7/19.4 NBA.
So if we are being optimistic: Kevin Garnett was a month older as NBA rookie than Mobley as a USC freshman and posted slightly worse rebound rates: 9.1/17.0 that dipped further as sophomore to 7.6/16.8, before creeping up as he filled out and eventually became a very good rebounder in his prime.
If Mobley both sees his rebound translate well to the NBA and he consistently improves over time like Garnett, he can be a top 10 all-time great like Garnett and Duncan. This is an unlikely outcome, but in tandem with the possibility that he can also shoot 3’s better than Garnett and Duncan, this level of greatness cannot be ruled for Mobley.
The more realistic outcome is that he is a slightly different version of Chris Bosh, which is still a hall of fame level player worthy of a #1 overall choice.
And even if he falls short and is closer to a Jaren Jackson Jr. type– that is still a highly useful NBA player.
It is difficult to see how anybody else can be justified as the #1 overall pick. Mobley has the highest upside, median, and floor of anybody in the draft. His current ESPN projected at #3 overall is starting to feel like 2014 again– as the warty and overhyped wing Cade Cunningham plays the role of Andrew Wiggins and empty calories volume scorer Jalen Green plays the role of Jabari Parker in Zach LaVine’s body.
Cunningham and Green can have much better careers than Wiggins and Parker respectively, but you cannot take either over the elite 7 footer who moves like a ballerina and expect favorable results. At least in 2014, GM’s had the excuse of fretting over Embiid’s foot injury that delayed his eventual NBA debut by 2 seasons. In 2021 there is no injury excuse– you either take Mobley, or run the risk of setting your franchise back for years to come.