Evan Mobley: The Paradigm Shifter

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Updated: November 15, 2021
mobley & barnes

For a significant portion of NBA history, the pure size of 7-footers dominated the draft. From 1980 to ’89, 7 of 10 number 1 selections were centers, the other three were forwards. In fact, between 1980 and 2007, the only guard taken number 1 in the draft was The Answer, Allen Iverson. The mantra looped on repeat every year on the ESPN telecast, “You can’t teach size.”

Mark Aguirre over Isiah in ’81, Sam Bowie over Jordan in ’84, Coleman over Payton in ’90, Olowokandi over Bibby in 98, Bogut over CP3 in ’05, and Oden over KD in ’07, is the shorthanded list of traditional 7-foot centers who were taken over talent. It’s not to say that selecting dominating giants who powered the paint didn’t pay off for any franchises. We have Hakeem in ’84, Ewing in ’85, Robinson in ’87, Shaq in ’92, Duncan in ’97, and Dwight in 04, to represent the bigs as number 1 selections as first ballot hall of famers.

But something changed dramatically after this period as we began to enter the modern era…the ideology of value shifts away from the cement block 7-footers and drifts towards score first guards and iso-wings. From ’08 to the recent 2021 draft, only 3 centers were taken with the 1st pick, and that includes Anthony Davis who has predominately played the 4 throughout his career. In contrast, 6 guards and 5 Forwards were taken, including this year where two guards in Cade and Jalen Green were both selected in front of the 7-foot monster, 19-year-old Evan Mobley. There was even chatter of some scouts who preferred the Magic’s Jalen Suggs over Mobley. In the ’80s or ’90s, Mobley would’ve been the unquestioned #1 pick by a unanimous cast of votes and yet there were very few analysts who highlighted Evan as their #1 prospect.

The question that has been asked over the last half-decade is what is the distance in production between a max salary center and a pair of vet-bigs picked up off scrap heap in free agency? We saw the Warriors start 7-footers in the Finals who other franchises had thrown away and win titles with their overwhelming weapons in the backcourt, and too many franchises that maxed their traditional centers, only to be left with buyer’s remorse.

The true paradigm shift though occurred in 2018, with the selections of DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley over the Slovenian Serpent Luka Dončić and the Madison Square Garden Killer, Trae Young. Up until that point, the ideological makeup of the league was divided. Clearly, since two franchises passed on the Euro-League MVP point guard for bigs. Even with the exceptional performances of DeAndre Ayton for Phoenix in these recent playoffs, his lack of impact in the Finals only further solidified the new belief system in value. These last two years have stated clearly what the NBA now values as 7’1 freak of nature James Wisemen was passed over for combo guard Anthony Edwards and Mobley was passed over twice for a facilitator and a score first 2-guard.

However, the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team who last year was defined by their undersized SexLand backcourt has been a defensive revelation centered around the rookie Evan Mobley. Wildly, the Cavs have been starting 3 7-footers, slotting the rookie at the “4” but it’s clear that Mobley and Jarrett Allen are the newest renditions of a twin-tower frontcourt as they both skillfully protect the rim.

With the high-end play of Scottie Barnes in Toronto and the recent play of Jonathan Kuminga, both of whom look like they will be able to cover 1-5 on the defensive end, a new mantra may be coming into style…you can’t teach Size + Guard-like Athleticism

Too often the NBA gets blinded by its dualities and misses the nuances which define these subjective equations of thought. It is not that giants are being bled out of our top-tier talent—on the contrary, they are increasing. It is simply that their roles and skillsets are changing. Davis, KD, and Giannis all represent the unicorns that play non-traditional roles, and the two top MVP candidates last year were Jokic and Embiid. That is half of our top 10 players in the league being 7-foot in shoes, however, the only one that plays like a traditional 7-foot center is Joel Embiid who is a generational defensive talent and lowkey unstoppable in paint when healthy. The Joker (even when Murray is on the floor for Denver), plays the point as their primary facilitator and decision-maker and is a sniper from distance.

With how the game used to be played, being enormous and overwhelming in the paint was enough to be starting center, but the game has evolved. With more offensive dynamic attacks, ball movement, 3-point shooting, and overall skill level from scorers, bigs too often are exposed for their limitations as they are pulled out to the perimeter. These slow-moving giants have often been removed from starting lineup and used as specialty items off the bench. It is not that centers have become extinct, but that the expectations of playing the 5 have elevated.

Even in the previous eras where centers dominated the league, from the list we named earlier, the only one limited to a traditional 5 offensive skill set was Dwight Howard. David Robinson and a young Shaquille O’Neal were freaks of nature that could take a board off the glass and sprint like a gazelle in transition for a one man break. Hakeem, Robinson, and Ewing all had feathery jumpers and comfortably took jump shots 15 feet from the basket and presumably would’ve adopted the 3-ball if they had played in the modern era. Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem, and Robinson would all be dominant forces in today’s NBA—not only due to their size and ability to protect the rim but their overall skill set.

The league is now quite saturated with young high-end guard talent, much of which was selected outside of the top 5 (Jamal Murray 7th, SGA 11th, LaVine 13th, Mitchell 13th, Herro 13th, Booker 13th, Poole 28th, and Clarkson 46th). What the NBA is not in excess of, is bigs who can play like guards while having the defensive versatility to protect the paint and cover scorers out on the perimeter. The way bigs are now being bred from an early age, Mobley may prove not to be the outlier but the new standard for the modern big prospect, with the dynamics of guard-like handle and passing in combination with the size to dominate the paint and control the glass. This highly anticipated draft class may shift the paradigm that has recently frowned upon taking bigs at #1 depending on how the two trios of Mobley-Barnes-Kuminga and Cade-Green-Suggs pan out over the upcoming years. 

 

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