The Whiteboard: Evan Mobley isn’t just ahead of the curve on defense

Cleveland Cavaliers, The Whiteboard

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Evan Mobley’s incredibly advanced defense has gotten plenty of attention in the early part of this season, including a detailed breakdown from Ben Ladner in last week’s installment of The Long Two. The rookie is averaging 1.3 blocks and 0.9 steals per game so far this season, impressive numbers that still undersell his impact as a rim protector and disruptive force in the middle of the floor.

But his advanced length, quickness, anticipation, awareness and vision are paying dividends at the offensive end of the floor too.

Mobley is averaging 15.3 points and 2.5 assists per game, shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 80.0 percent from the free-throw line. His range doesn’t yet reliably extend to the 3-point line but he’s shooting 38.1 percent on long 2-pointers. With his solid mechanics and smooth stroke, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine him dramatically extending that range over the next few years.

But where Mobley has arguably been most impressive on offense is with his decision-making, particularly in the middle of the floor. He is incredibly skilled and the smart ways in which he deploys these skills, situationally, makes him look a lot more like a savvy veteran than a 20-year-old rookie.

Evan Mobley is already a force working from the elbows

Mobley has been among the league leaders in elbow touches per game and he’s made the most of them, both creating shots for himself and for his teammates. He’s comfortable pulling up and taking the mid-range jumper and defenders have to play him closely, which gives him an opportunity to use his handle and put the ball on the floor.

Mobley is an excellent finisher and a very strong foul shooter, so even drawing a foul on those face-up attempts is a huge win for the Cavs’ offense. No one in the league has drawn more fouls off elbow touches so far this season.

But what really makes him so special is his passing from these set-ups. He’s a true triple-threat in that mid-range area, someone who can put pressure on the defense by driving, passing or shooting. Sometimes it’s simply recognizing the seams and drawing extra defenders to him for the dump-off. Sometimes it’s reading the defense and setting up for a dribble hand-off and screen. Sometimes it’s just patiently reading the options on a short roll to find space on the baseline. Sometimes it’s just a beautiful look-away to freeze the defense to find the open shooter in the corner.

Mobley has already recorded six assists on elbow touches and only four players have recorded more — Steven Adams, Nikola Jokic, Jarrett Allen and Nikola Vucevic. That fact that his frontcourt partner (Allen) is also on that list speaks to the structure of Cleveland’s offense but Allen’s assists haven’t demonstrated the same range as Mobley’s, more likely to be simple kick-outs or dribble hand-offs.

But the facility of both players from the elbows and the high-low action chemistry they’ve built has been one of the major factors in the success of their giant lineups. The trio of Mobley, Allen and Lauri Markannen have already assisted each other 22 times this season in 12 games, even though Markannen has only played in eight of them.

Mobley’s spot-up game will come and he’s also been a serious post-up threat, netting 15 points on just post-up possessions, which ranks in the 90th percentile in efficiency. But his ability to score, drive and pass from the middle of the floor adds breadth and depth to the Cavaliers offense and significantly raises the ceiling for both complementary core pieces like Darius Garland, Allen and Markannen, as well as the future role players who flesh out this roster over the next few years.

Evan Mobley looks like a two-way star whose future isn’t that far away. But he also blesses the Cavs with enough versatility to work in a variety of sets and give them plenty of flexibility as they build towards a hypothetical contender.

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