The NBA has revolutionized. The pick and roll has completely taken over the game. Thus, the emphasis and importance of having the top-of-the-line pick-and-roll creators that can bend the game to their will are at the top of the minds of NBA teams. The bigger the creator, the better. That’s why Cade Cunningham is at the top of seemingly everyone’s draft boards, and rightfully so. That’s how Luka Doncic can step into the NBA and immediately dominate it. It’s why LeBron James is arguably the greatest player of all time. That isn’t to say Cunningham is going to be either of those two, or anything close, but I do happen to think he is going to be great because he has the facilities to play a similar style those two shares as well.
You don’t have to be 6’8” or above to dominate the pick and roll either, though. We just saw Trae Young will his Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals way ahead of schedule. Neither Chris Paul nor Devin Booker exceeds 71 inches in height, but they’ve led their teams to the NBA Finals executing the most beautiful and sophisticated pick and roll attack in the NBA today. Look across the landscape of playoff teams and you will find far more dynamic pick and roll creators than skilled, difference-making big men. This shifting NBA landscape is how and why G League Ignite alum Jalen Green is gaining momentum towards being the second pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and could maybe push Cade Cunningham for the top spot.
Yes, it is harder to build around a big man as an offense’s primary option and focal point in today’s NBA. Just look at the Philadelphia 76ers and the constant juggling of their roster surrounding Joel Embiid trying to find the right fits around him, and part (most?) of the reason for their yearly postseason flameouts is the lack of a signature pick and roll creator. Tobias Harris being your primary perimeter creator in the halfcourt and Ben Simmons’s lack of evolution in this field has proven to not be enough.
The Sixers are just one example though. Teams building relying on big men as top-notch offenses still have enjoyed success in recent seasons. Though the Los Angeles Lakers are fortunate to have LeBron James on their roster, Anthony Davis was just as big a factor in their quest to a championship a season ago as the perfect pick and roll dance partner to go alongside LeBron James. Giannis Antetokounmpo only recently becoming more accepting of being the screener and roller in the pick and roll this postseason has helped the Bucks advance further than they ever had in the Giannis era. Nikola Jokic just won the league’s MVP award this season.
Because here’s the thing: every pick and roll needs an avenue towards creating an advantage. And another thing: if you know your opponents are more and more frequenting toward the pick and roll as their primary offensive function, you need a way to stop it too. Though guards screening for each other has grown more and more in popularity (The Atlanta Hawks just used this to their advantage to oust the Sixers in the playoffs by picking on Seth Curry or Furkan Korkmaz every chance they got), it’s arguably easier to gain this advantage with the most versatile of versatile centers. Davis and Antetokounmpo’s combination of lob threats matched with either post force or finesse will either create easier opportunities for them to dominate switches against smaller defenders or their pick and roll partner to create great looks for themselves or their teammates. Neither are great shooters but Davis is at least a capable one from range who can stretch bigs off the floor if they’re unable to defend on the perimeter. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray feed off of each other better than perhaps any duo in the entire NBA. Switching is non-negotiable or else Murray is roasting a center in isolation or Jokic is picking a scrambling defense apart. Both the Bucks and Nuggets had offenses finish inside the top six in the NBA during the regular season, according to NBA.com. The Lakers were tenth in offensive rating at the time Davis got injured and before their season got derailed, so teams can have success offensively off the strength of a big man and have it carry over to success in the postseason. However, the common threading between those teams is they all have a pick and roll partner (LeBron James, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, Jamal Murray) to accentuate their strengths.
So, what’s more important: the dynamic creator capable of creating shots for himself or others and able to bend the game to their will, or the versatile big who can punish mismatches, finish at the rim, and score on the perimeter as well? The answer is… it depends. If you have a big, bruising, playmaking wing who can score like a guard as well as a LeBron James or Luka Doncic, that should be priority number one, in my opinion. But if there is a big man who *can* stretch the floor, punish mismatches, be a lob threat, pass out of double teams AND be able to defend all of those plays on the other end of the floor without putting your defense in a massive disadvantage the way an Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo can do, I think recent NBA trends have shown they can be difference makers and ceiling raisers that can lead your team to championships. Perhaps the last two championships have shown that the NBA is changing again.
I swear all of this rambling is for a reason. It’s to get us talking about USC’s Evan Mobley. Mobley is in many ways similar to Davis and Giannis. Mobley is a long seven-footer who is extremely dynamic and versatile on both ends of the floor. In just about any other draft, Mobley could easily have his name called first by commissioner Adam Silver but could see himself fall to the third pick in the draft. According to Kevin O’Connor of ‘The Ringer’ the Rockets, holders of the second pick of the draft, currently favor Jalen Green at the moment. I don’t think the Rockets really could do anything wrong with Green or Mobley assuming Cade Cunningham is on his way to Detroit, but if we’re going to split hairs here, I’d slightly prefer Mobley and his supreme versatility than Green’s perimeter creation.
Let’s start defensively regarding Evan Mobley. Mobley is one of the better rim protectors I’ve ever seen at the collegiate ranks. Granted, the NCAA’s rules allowing players to camp out in the lane for more than three seconds really helps matters, but Mobley is already so great at positioning himself in the pick and roll, something that takes big men years to master. Mobley already has it down pat. Take this play as proof:
Mobley sticks himself right where he needs to be to take away both the threat of the lob pass and the mid-range jumper. But the job isn’t done yet. Oregon State’s ballhandler goes to the Nash dribble along the baseline to try to clear out the paint. Evan’s brother Isaiah takes the ballhandler and Evan takes Isaiah’s man in the paint. After that, Mobley sees a Beaver cutting to the rim and rotates over to block his shot. That’s pretty insane defense and just shows that Mobley is already ready to protect the paint. In an NBA that asks its players to switch onto guards and wings, Mobley is already capable of doing that too. He answers the bell of what NBA teams *need* from their big men in the modern game defensively.
Offensively, there just isn’t a lot Evan Mobley can’t do. Mobley wasn’t a great floor spacer, but that’s about it. But he can create space vertically, however. Last season, Mobley generated 1.089 points per possession as a roll man. Considering Andy Enfield’s insistence on cramping the spacing for his team as much as possible by pairing another big man alongside Evan Mobley, this is pretty damn impressive. Look how much attention Mobley garners in the paint when he rolls:
Evan Mobley can also get you a bucket with the ball in his hands. In isolation situations, Mobley generated 1.077 points per possession. That’s a monster number. Not many seven-footers can match athleticism with supreme skill and feel like this.
Ehh, just casually bringing the ball up the floor after a rebound, then spin to dribble at the rim with his off-hand and finish through contact for an and-1, no biggie. Good God, that’s incredible. That’s not just a thing Mobley can pull off in transition with a head of steam, either. Mobley can create shots like that off the dribble in the halfcourt, too.
Evan Mobley is already damn near impossible to guard as is, but what makes it all the more difficult to check him is his passing ability. Mobley averaged 2.4 assists per game, though did also put up 2.2 turnovers a game as well. To put that in context, however: Tennessee guard and possible lottery pick Keon Johnson averaged 2.5 assists per game with 2.6 turnovers a game, so you’re getting guard-like passing from Mobley as well. What is so great about Mobley is you can give him the ball at the elbows, run the offense through him, and know he’s going to make the right play and execute the offense.
What’s most noticeable from Evan Mobley’s feel and passing ability is how great he is passing out of double teams. It can take big men a very long time to be comfortable reading the floor and finding open teammates in the midst of chaos, but that’s a breeze for Mobley.
Look how patient Mobley is waiting until his teammate finds open space along the three-point arc. As soon as that happens, Mobley sends a laser from one of the floor to the other to create a wide-open three along the wing. Unfortunately, Mobley doesn’t get the assist here, but he was able to get countless others doing the same thing over the course of the season.
The NBA has changed, but it might be changing again. Though the NBA is now a perimeter, pick and roll centric game, there’s still room for bigs to wreck the game. With all this said, I’d still take Cade Cunningham first overall if I had to make the choice. Were someone to take Jalen Green second, I wouldn’t fault them whatsoever given the direction the league is going. For a big man to warrant a top-three pick, they have to be able to dominate on both ends of the floor. Fortunately, Mobley is a two-way force with the goods to make that so. It shouldn’t shock anybody if we look back on this draft class in five or ten years from now and refer to Mobley as the best player in this class that eventually leads whatever team that drafts him to a title. He’s that good and can change the direction of whatever franchise drafts him.