âThat feint noise you hear in the wind? That's me, shouting from the rooftops from the last several months that Cade Cunningham is the clear-cut number one pick in the draft.
Come closer to the building and you'll find me sitting there, elbow on knee and head on hand, deep in thought about what comes next. This draft class has emerged into a firm top-six prospects for me, with Cade Cunningham at the helm. Separation between the other five has been difficult to achieve; my board has fluctuated much of the last few months as I try to sort between all these prospects. I've settled into one ranking: Jonathan Kuminga is pretty firmly entrenched at #6.
The book ends are set, but 2 thru 5 remain fluid. So, like I'm taking the advice of a therapist to vent about my problems, I'm going to write about each prospect. The idea is that writing is cathartic for myself: that the process of pen-to-page and detailing each player's best and worst traits will bring clarity to the order I'll be comfortable placing them in.
But this series will also operate as a launching off point for a greater discussion: understanding why each player has a legitimate case for the spot. Too often, I've seen boards with guys like Evan Mobley or Jalen Green locked into those spots, while Jalen Suggs and Scottie Barnes fall a half-step lower. My hope is that after reading all these pieces, you'll see that the case for Suggs or Barnes to go over one (or both) of Green and Mobley isn't as radical as draft Twitter makes it seem.
That said, Mobley stands out as the most polished and defensively impactful of the group. This 2021 NBA Playoffs has shown the volatility of the 5 in postseason series. Guys like Rudy Gobert, a multi-time NBA DPOY winner who anchored dominant defenses on the league's top team, can get played off the floor in the playoffs if unable to alter his scheme and move on the perimeter. Others, like DeAndre Ayton, emerge as impactful because they combine their PNR finishing on offense with open-floor fluidity and mobility on defense.
We're nowhere near the death of the true big man. Instead, it's a necessity to be able to move on the perimeter and not be pigeonholed into one scheme. Elite point guards are simply too good at carving up Drop coverage to exclusively deploy it.
That's the major appeal of Mobley. He offers the Drop PNR upside of a guy like Gobert or Ayton as a heady rim protector with awesome length, great instincts and the ability to cover ground. As far as polish goes, Mobley comes into the league as the most polished defensive big man I've scouted.
Beyond the effectiveness in the league's most common defense, Mobley can do much more. He's mobile enough to be switchable on the perimeter. He guards well in isolation in the mid-post. Put him at the 4 and he'd be fine on defense, making him an ultra hybrid defender who you anchor a defense around at the 5 or put him as a suffocatingly long option 1v1 against elite forwards.
Buying into Mobley as the second-best player in this draft requires a willingness to prioritize that defensive weaponry over offensive impact. That doesn't mean Mobley has little-to-no offensive upside. There are flashes of face-up creation, full-court handling and shooting touch that would allow him to unlock that frontcourt versatility on defense because he could play either position on offense.
Pretty much every team with a true center has thrived in the regular season building off Drop pick-and-roll coverage. Analytically-speaking, it's the most effective at controlling shot selection: chase the PNR handler over the top of the screen and funnel him towards the dropped big who protects the basket, taking away both the pull-up 3 and the layup. The theory is that, by forcing mid-range jumpers and doing your best to guard the screen 2v2 in the middle or side of the floor, kick-out 3-pointers and uncontested rim attempts will be limited.
In a game increasingly played like a math equation, having a defender who locks down the paint and seldom makes mistakes is crucial. The term 'deterrent' comes up a ton with big men: is their presence as a looming shot blocker or defensive threat in the paint enough to discourage drivers from taking shots? That's where Gobert has made his money of late... he's so good at blocking shots and protecting the basket that some opponents will avoid testing him altogether. When the rim gets shut down, and the game is purely a shooting contest, the rest of the defensive identity changes.
Now, the other four guys on the floor can play with increased aggression, knowing a security blanket exists behind. They can switch actions 1 thru 4 and not fear slips or post-up mismatches as much. Better yet, the front office can prioritize offensive firepower over perimeter defenders when building a roster because they have one guy down low to clean up the mess.
Lofting such expectations on Mobley from day one is a little unfair, but he's already demonstrated as much impact when dropping back towards the basket or playing pick-and-roll defense to deserve evaluation as a foundational defensive piece. For a team like the Houston Rockets in the two-spot, Cleveland at 3 or Toronto at 4, placing a winning defender down low allows them to be more aggressive in fielding offensive talent. The Mobley pick isn't just about "Mobley in a vacuum is better than Green or Suggs", it's about the ease of roster construction that comes after solidifying the defense because of Mobley.
That's only possible because of how good he's been in his lone year at USC. As a weak-side rim protector, Mobley has all the tools to be successful: length, verticality, timing and IQ to recognize when his services are needed:
Because of his impact here, it's likely that his drafting team will try to keep him close to the basket as much as possible. High hedging, switching or more aggressive schemes would remove Mobley from the general rim area. Drop coverage is, as far as meat and potatoes go, the way to proceed.
âThat's where the proof in Mobley's time playing in Drop at USC is so dominantly encouraging. He has the length and quickness to challenge pull-up jumpers and block their shots, surprising those players who comfortably stroll into the mid-range shot they think is available. Mobley plays a cat-and-mouse game with angles, forcing the handler to read him instead of dictate the play's ending. He has the quickness and recovery skills to challenge rollers at the rim. He knows when it's an emergency and he needs to switch onto guards.
âHis overall sense for what to do and how to do it when playing Drop coverage is so advanced for a one-and-done prospect:
Foundationally speaking, this is how most successful NBA defenses are built: bigs who can patrol the paint, discourage shots and allow roster-building to be easier as a result.
With Mobley, the appeal is in the fact he has a little more outside just the foundation...
Variety is the spice of life. Do one thing every time down the floor and you become easy to guard.
The same is said on defense. We saw the Los Angeles Clippers, a team without dominant interior defenders, string together sturdy performances on that end in the postseason because they weren't afraid to do different things: trapping, switching, you name it. Ty Lue deserves credit for his willingness to push any button, but the only reason he has so many buttons to press is because the roster is versatile.
Mobley instantly vaults himself into that unicorn-like tier of big man defensive prospects because he isn't just a Drop coverage big. He can switch ball screens and guard smalls, navigating the perimeter well because he's comfortable guarding smaller guys. Switching is massive in so many situations, especially when an offense isn't expecting it.
First, is late-clock. Either in late games or in the final seconds of a shot clock, so many players default to 1v1 play or calling for a high ball screen. The advantages gained are space-creation that allow a scorer to read the play and quickly get off a shot -- there's likely little time to score. Switching defaults the advantages gained at the point of a screen, negating the space that would've been created in Drop coverage. It forces a one-on-one contest, and with Mobley's length, that's a pretty low percentage shot.
Second is what I call the "bait and switch". You dangle an attractive option in front of an opponent and hope they take that instead of waiting to see if they'll get the most attractive option. The math-driven NBA that values 3-pointers instead of mid-ranges might space the floor, wait for the defense to collapse and go for a kick-out trey. An early-clock switch between big and little, where Mobley would accept a point guard, could see the inverse as an advantage for the offense: a screener now guarded by a small guard.
Goating an offense into mismatch-hunting can take them out of their gameplan and, in some ways, choose who the scorer is going to be. As the league trends to more screen-and-roll bigs, where back-to-the-basket polish isn't emphasized as heavily, defenses aren't hurt by switches. And if they are, they're giving up a two-pointer often in the mid-range. The switch and mismatch in the post isn't as vaunted as it once was, and there are ways to rotate out of it to protect little guys.
Third, and perhaps most valuable, is the strategy of switching as a means of applying pressure. It's increasingly difficult to be aggressive on the perimeter at all five positions. In a ball screen league with 4-out spacing for easy extra passes and farther distances for helpers to juggle perimeter and rim responsibilities, there are so many reasons not to trap, high hedge or aggressively get into the basketball far from the hoop. But if you can switch and not feel like you're ceding an advantage, it allows you to be the aggressor on defense. A huge reason the Golden State Warriors title teams were impactful going small wasn't just because they had length and size to guard up, it was that they could be forceful on the basketball, which prevents teams from hurting you with off-ball actions. Even at the highest levels, ball pressure and intensity lead to handlers who put their head down and dribble the ball.
Mobley isn't Draymond Green or Kevin Durant; he's not the fastest guy on the floor when guarding every position. His switching is more about length and angles than crowding and using recovery skills or agility. But Mobley fits into such a scheme because he's switchable, so in a playoff series where gameplans have to change and the element of surprise matters, his perimeter comfort opens the door for coaches to push whatever buttons they must.
From a mobility standpoint, the best comparison for Mobley to recent prospects would be to Jaren Jackson Jr. or Bam Adebayo. Put him on 4s or 5s and he looks juuuust fine.
That opens up the positional question of whether Mobley is a true 5 or a hybrid frontcourt prospect (a la Jackson, Adebayo or Anthony Davis) who can really do either. I'll be the first to tell you that it doesn't really matter all that much since Mobley will be fine defensively guarding a 4. The real indicator is about what he can do on offense.
Intertwined in the "can Mobley be a 4" discussion is about the value of taking a big man this high in the draft. The league is almost exclusively built on having one "big" on the floor at a time, while needing four players with perimeter offensive skill is necessary to function in a modern scheme. That changes the criteria for bigs when evaluating them at the top of a draft going neck-and-neck for high-value draft picks.
Last year in evaluating James Wiseman, I hit on four skill categories that make modern bigs functionally versatile. If they can do all four, they have a chance to really alter the way a team plays on both ends so much that their presence (or the risk of their potential) is as valuable as a swing on a scoring hub from the guard or wing spots.
Those four categories:
At this point, we've established Mobley tests really well in the two defensive categories here. To be a mega-versatile 5-man that's taken above alpha creators, we'd need to evaluate how he fares offensively while also parsing out if those skills/ traits would allow him to be a 4-man for long stretches next to the right 5.
Scoring, Facilitating & Projection
Far too frequently I've heard the comparison of Anthony Davis thrown around for Mobley. I'm not high on player comps to begin with, but especially this one. Davis was a point guard through most of his life before a massive growth spurt propelled him to become nearly a seven-footer. His guard skills were developed not just because he worked on them, but because he literally played as a guard.
In the NBA, that translated to Davis running actions more as a big 4-man where he could initiate offense and play off the bounce from the perimeter. He's able to use his relative strength and quickness to bully other 6'10" forwards to spots. Complimenting that is a sturdy handle and dexterity that is exacerbated by his core strength.
Mobley doesn't have the core strength (yet) to merit the comparison. What he has, though, is amazing length and quicker procession/ decision-making as a passer that allows him to be much more of a creator for others. While Davis averages 24 points and 2.3 dimes for his career, Mobley is much closer to a 18 and 4 creator who doesn't score it the same.
Let's start with the simple measure: Mobley is already great functionally in the spaces that most 5s operate. As a finisher out of the pick-and-roll, he's outstanding, posting 1.089 PPP (points per possession). The elite finishing ability sucks help defenders in a little closer, fearing his ability to quickly launch off the floor, length to finish with either hand and soft touch. Those help defenders collapse and leave their man open, leading to Mobley shredding them with kickouts.
âThe ability to do both makes him a high-level prospect at the 5.
We're working hard to establish the floor for Mobley: a defensively impactful prospect who can be an elite finisher off the PNR and short roll creator. The jump shot (30% from 3) has promise enough to stretch him out to the 3-point range, the final compliment to making him a four-tool big man prospect.
Beyond that, there's the face-up upside. I'm typically of the belief that his face-up game and ability off the bounce pops most at the 5, where he'll have a relative quickness advantage to get into the lane and cause help defenders to collapse. That speed difference is minimal, if not in a defender's favor, should Mobley be guarded by a 4 full-time.
That doesn't minimize the long strides Mobley uses and the straight lines he plays in that will allow him to get past his man. There's a wonky pick-and-roll handler ability that is still untapped because he's controlled and always a passing threat. He has the length and first step to go past guys, but if he has a size advantage, those controlled bounces and passing ability will be incredibly difficult to stop. Put him at the 4 and he can use them.
Let's be clear here: Mobley is best suited as a 5 in my book. The upside to be a 4, while there in stretches, will largely depend upon his floor-spacing ability and who he becomes paired with at the 5.
But Mobley isn't this low-ceiling, known commodity of a prospect that would simply make him a safe, non-alpha option in comparison to Jalen Green. There are very real playmaking flashes off the bounce and out of the pick-and-roll that could entice a team to snatch him up at #2 overall.
Specifically for Houston, there's a ton of appeal to construct a frontcourt specifically around Mobley once you see what his full capabilities are. Defensively it could be monstrous and allow them an easier rebuild when they chase scoring and offensive production from their backcourt spots. But this is the offensive upside: a swing frontcourt piece that allows him to slide to multiple positions and let the Rockets play big or small.
He may not be a 25 point per game scorer and true offensive alpha, but he'll be the linchpin that unlocks roster versatility for the front office and compliments literally any type of alpha that exists. When starting a rebuild, there's no shame in taking a guy like that first so that, when you eventually find your Batman, you aren't reshuffling your deck to produce the perfect Robin.