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Is Evan Mobley the NBA's Next Great Defensive Player?

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It’s the third quarter, with a little under one minute left. The short-handed Chicago Bulls trail the Cleveland Cavaliers 80-64. A desperate Zach Lavine, eager to close the gap, makes a mad dash to the rim. For a 69% finisher in that area, such a decision normally proves to be a fruitful one, but this time the cupboard is bare. He’s overlooked a confounding variable in the equation. He's entered Evan Mobley's territory. 

Lavine goes airborne, and almost instantaneously, KABOOM!

Mobley rips the ball from Lavine in midair, and with it, the collective soul of the Chicago Bulls roster.

“Wrong guy! Wrong guy!” A mic’d up Jarrett Allen shouts from the sideline.

And he’s right. Mobley is a damn good defender. The kind of defender who goes on to get selected to All-Defensive Teams. The kind that contends for DPOYs. And maybe, just maybe, the kind that inserts himself in the pantheon of all-time great defensive anchors. 

To determine the likelihood of the final scenario of that triplet, I studied the game's most venerable guardians to identify some of their common characteristics. I then asked: Is Mobley already here? And if not, does he have the means of arriving in the near future?

Strength

The first commonality among great defensive anchors that I will touch on is strength. In basketball, being strong isn’t so much about being able to haul around massive amounts of weight. Rather, it’s about being able to absorb or distribute contact to gain an advantage on your man, something few players did better than Big Ben Wallace.

During his reign of defensive terror, Wallace proved that his bowling ball biceps were useful for far more than just being fodder for Sports Illustrated covers. He regularly exercised his chiseled frame to stonewall other bruisers' post-up attempts. Poor Jermaine O’Neal didn’t stand a chance.

Unfortunately, Mobley hasn’t displayed the same level of immovability. He is overpowered by heavier big men (first clip) or knocked off his feet by smaller players with a head of steam going towards the rim (second clip).

His lack of functional strength also shows up in his rebounding, where he struggles to position himself under the rim and hold his ground on box-outs, often allowing second chances because of it.

The numbers paint a similar picture. The Cavaliers are in just the 11th percentile in opponent offensive rebounding percentage when Mobley is on the floor (per Cleaning the Glass). Moving forward, Mobley will need to add more size to his frame to make him better equipped to take and dish out contact in the paint.

Hands

Even with Herculean strength, there will always be an opponent with a little more power in their punch (you know, unless you're Shaq). Instead of being neutralized by such bullies, the great ones can counter by using their paws to pressure the ball and frustrate their opponent.

Here, Tim Duncan thinks he’s got Wallace on the ropes as he’s backing him down. But with a perfectly timed swipe at the ball from Wallace, it’s Duncan who is down for the count:

From afar, it appears Mobley has that parlor trick in his routine as well. In this clip, he’s able to time his strike at the ball right before it leaves Naz Reid’s hands, causing a turnover as a result:

Great hands are also helpful when contesting shots in the air. The best defenders don’t lose focus when they take flight; they are fully aware of the ball’s trajectory and their position in relation to it. And the moment it becomes vulnerable, they pounce.

Watch how Draymond Green avoids entangling himself with Ja Morant (and a potential foul call) by waiting until the ball is unprotected to swat it out of his hands:

While Mobley is good at avoiding unnecessary collisions with offensive players (92nd in foul rate among big men), he also has a habit of outright missing the basketball on some of his contests. 

Here, Mobley is in the proper position to make a play, but for some reason, he can’t seem to locate the ball and gives up two unnecessary points:

The current gap that exists between Mobley and all-timers like Ben Wallace and Draymond Green is evident when comparing their respective steal rates, a strong indicator of “handsy-ness” on defense. For their careers, Wallace and Green both average a steal percentage right around the 2.5 mark. This season, Evan Mobley’s current rate is a measly 1.4 percent.

Closing that deficit will come in handy in the playoffs when teams employ more Boogie Cousins-type big men to target Mobley

Positional Versatility

In today’s game, big men who can switch seamlessly are all the rage, but this is hardly a recent development; throughout league history, the titans who could guard multiple positions have been of great value to their teams. Arguably no big was more renowned during his prime for this type of versatility than Kevin Garnett, who could legitimately guard all five positions on the floor. 

Watch this sequence as he picks up speed demon Mike Bibby on his drive to the rim, uses his tentacles to disrupt the pass (he had great hands too!) and ignite the fastbreak:

Today, Draymond Green is the gold standard of this practice:

Early on, it appears Mobley’s greatest strength as a defender is his ability to stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter. This season, he sits at third among “Anchor Bigs” in Positional Versatility (per BBall Index). 

Stats like Positional Versatility (which rely on tracking data) can be a bit finicky at times, yet the same phenomenon is noticeable on tape too. As my buddy Bryce Simon says the “Film Don’t Lie:”

At just 19 years old, Mobley is already one of the best switching big men in the league, which has been the key to unlocking Bickerstaff’s three big men lineups this season. But to truly reach the holy grail as a defender, he will have to make some improvements in one final category of defensive brilliance.

Rim Protection

Rim protection on defense is what family is to Don Corleone: everything. All other aspects of defense become easier when you have a reliable force protecting the paint. On a micro-level, a sturdy rim enforcer can completely take away the highest percentage shot in basketball; on a macro-level, their presence allows perimeter players to play their man tighter because they know they are covered if they get blown past.

Now, to be an all-time great rim protector, you generally need to possess either great jump speed, reaction time, or positional soundness.

David Robinson provides a perfect example of supersonic leaping ability in action. As Ben Taylor pointed out, it only took Robinson six- or seven-tenths of a second to get from his gather to the apex of his jump.

Pay close attention to this clip. If you blink, you just might miss it:

Mobley isn’t nearly as fast of a hopper and, accordingly, is a split-second too late on some of his contests:

If you compare the two’s techniques side-by-side, you’ll see that Mobley requires more bend in his knees to transfer the energy necessary to fuel his jumps. This movement adds another half-second or so to his overall process, which means he needs to be in proper position earlier than Robinson would in order to make timely contests.

To compensate, he could learn to cover ground more quickly and materialize at the rim at a moment’s notice, like Hakeem Olajuwon does against Scottie Pippen right here:

Right now, though, Mobley is a little late to react to events as they occur on the floor. In the next clip, he's slow to recognize that Rudy Gobert is streaking down the floor with an empty road in front of him, and because of this, he’s late on his attempt to break up the lob.

Of course, as Mobley gets older and gains more repetitions under his belt, this facet of the game will slow down for him and he’ll be able to blow up plays like that one with more regularity. But even if such maturation doesn't occur, Mobley can lean into being more of the Tim Duncan "right place, right time" type to help fortify a team's last line of defense. 

Duncan wasn’t incredibly adept at quickly reacting to events on the court, and he couldn’t rely on swift leaping abilities to compensate for his flaws, so he prided himself on always being in the right spot to make a play.

Duncan would often hover around the paint to ensure that he was always only a few steps away from the ball, much to the chagrin of Kerry Kittles.

I’ve noticed a similar tactic being deployed by Bickerstaff and the Cavs this season. Mobley is regularly instructed to sag off his man on the perimeter and roam closer to the paint, which puts him in primetime position to make plays around the rim.

His positioning still isn’t perfect: he can be out of place or late to rotations at times, and it’s also possible to counter Bickerstaff’s scheme by going five-out and forcing Mobley out on the perimeter. Still, Mobley appears to be the kind of player who is smart enough and athletic enough to consistently put himself in position to prevent easy shots at the rim, which is a promising sign moving forward.

Conclusion

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Mat Issa

So, is Evan Mobley the next great defensive anchor?

Right now, probably not. He still needs to add more muscle. He needs to sharpen his ability to locate the ball. And he needs to figure out which skill(s) he’s going to hone in on to make his bones as a consistent rim-protecting force.

But notice how I said right now and probably not? The beauty about basketball is that growth doesn’t normally plateau at age-19; on the contrary, in most cases, it is only just the beginning. Evan Mobley is a flawed defender, but he’s got a ton of upside. And that upside gives him a chance to join the storied lineage of all-time great defensive anchors.

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