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Will Evan Mobley become a missed opportunity for Rockets?

The USC star could easily wind up the best player in this draft class.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon at Southern California Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

After Adam Silver strolls across the stage and announces who’s been picked first in the 2021 NBA Draft, Evan Mobley will likely still be sitting, waiting, and anticipating for his name to soon be called. As the days have gone by, it now seems as if the Houston Rockets won’t be calling his name at all. But should they?

Seemingly, the basketball gods have presented the franchise with the second pick in the draft as a token of forgiveness after former General Manager Daryl Morey and the front office offended the big men of Olympus. That displeasure of course came when the Rockets attempted to eradicate the center position from the league when trading away Clint Capela and playing without a big man in hopes to master complete spacing while becoming NBA champions.

The ultimate practice of Morey-ball was nothing more than a failed experiment that helped fast forward toward the rebuilding stage. Meanwhile, big men around the association are thriving.

If it wasn’t evident before, the thuds that echoed throughout the chests of both Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder as Giannis Antetekounpo punished them and the Sun's defense to a tune of 50 points in Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals was a perfect indicator that bigs are not a dying breed. In fact, they aren’t anywhere near extinction.

Now before anyone makes any assumptions, no these aren’t thoughts that end with a loud, bold projection that Mobley is going to become a player that’s on the level of the Greek Freak. Instead, it’s an observation that the Rockets were dead wrong about what can be accomplished without having large bodies in the lineup. If there was any guy in the draft that can merge the learned lessons from Houston’s small-ball trials along with the deeper understanding of how to unlock positionless basketball, it’d be the former USC star.

While donning a Trojan uniform, Evan Mobley stood out. He went to USC after his senior year ranked as the second-best player in the country behind Jalen Green and then left the school after one season, where he helped lead his team to the Elite 8 where they were downed by the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

In 33 games, he averaged 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. He shot 57% from the field, 30% from three, and 69% from the free-throw line, which made him the most efficient player in the PAC-12 and 14th-best in the entire country. What’s he’s been known best for though is what he does on the defensive end of the floor.

The Southern California native is a 7’ skyscraper that’s better described as a high-riser. He has the type of bounce that isn’t flashy but is very much effective. You won’t see him leave many rims bruised after throwing down in-game windmill flushes, but what you will see is potential buckets being sent into the stands, dunk attempts that end up stifled and lay-ups that are stuck almost gasping for breath after being smudged between his hand and the backboard.

Throughout his lone season in Los Angeles, a Mobley-induced presence was felt by opposing teams while attacking the basket. He finished the year with a total of 95 blocks and averaged 2.9 per outing. His highest block total was six, and he reached it three times, which all is a key reason why he was not only named the PAC-12’s Player of the Year and Freshmen of the Year but also the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as well.

As great as his defensive numbers were, what they are unable to show is how he gets these blocks.

Below is a short, three-play compilation from the video above where I’ll add context to not only his ability to protect the rim but his all-around defensive intelligence.

As showcased above, when on the hardwood, Mobley totes a tremendous level of awareness while also remaining conscious of his stand-out abilities. It’s important to note that USC spent most of the season sitting in a 2-3 zone that’s slowly beginning to expand throughout the west coast since Mike Hopkins brought it to Washington after spending years as an assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. That Hopkins zone is the same one that Philidelphia 76er Mattisse Thybulle thrived in back in college for any naysayers that believe a player that sits in a zone won’t translate defensively when playing man-to-man.

In the first clip, we watch as USC’s zone quickly goes from exposed to broken once a Colorado junior guard sent the nearest defender flying with a pump fake, and then in an attempt to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he attacks the basket.

Initially, Mobley takes a step towards Parquet and had his mindset on cutting off the drive, but instead, he waited, quickly realizing that Parquet’s drive can only be finished at the rim, which is where Mobley is going to make his millions.

Once Parquet committed to his drive and put up a tough-looking layup, Mobley blocked the shot rather quickly and the play became just another testament to Mobley’s defensive presence. In just a split second, he had calculated the situation before electing to stay patient rather than running up, overly-help, and potentially pick up a foul.

In the next clip, we watch as he makes up for his own mistakes as USC has fallen victim to another defensive breakdown, this time at the fault of Mobley. Growing up playing basketball, you learn to never leave your feet defensively unless otherwise appropriate, and in this play, Mobley unnecessarily left his feet, and the Santa Clara Broncos nearly took advantage.

As he jumped, a bounce pass was snuck past him and ended up in the hands of a Bronco that was now running baseline with a chance to create some offense for his teammates. Mobley rotated over to the now-ball handler and attempts to force him out of bounds by shadowing him, but now the USC defense is vulnerable because they are out of position and Mobley’s under the backboard.

The ball is dumped off to another Bronco that’s in the paint, but as quickly as the pass was being thrown, The PAC-12 DPOY was already turning around, and the time it took for the pass recipient to gather the ball and put up the attempt was far too long for a man who doesn’t need much of it. In the end, it became just another entry to Mobley’s collection of blocks.

In the finale of clips, the Trojans are battling Washington, who is very experienced with breaking zones because they play one themselves, as mentioned earlier. As Husky guard Erik Stevenson sits and waits for a screen that’s coming by way of UW forward Hameir Wright, USC’s Drew Peterson anticipates a pick that Stevenson never uses, resulting in a straight line drive.

Awaiting in the paint is Mobley, who’s now tasked with stopping a two-on-one in a half-court setting as Stevenson drives at him and Nate Roberts patiently waits for a potential pass if Mobley commits too early.

But Mobley sits in the paint and Stevenson is granted the opportunity to attack a notorious shot-blocker that’s standing flat-footed and is vulnerable — aka, a shot at ending up on SportsCenter. But as he nears the hoop, Mobley shuffles towards him and without making any contact, sends away the highlight while making one of his own.

The assortment of clips is just a microscopic sample size of the immense pressure that the USC star puts on opposing offenses, and it’s more than just a tall man doing tall things because it’s more than just a 7’ blocking shots. Instead, think of it as an often-found occurrence of him turning defensive breakdowns into empty possessions, which leaves scoring opportunities ending as nothing more than just opportunity.

While his defense has left him praised, his offense has left a desire to see more. One of the biggest knocks against Mobley that has arisen is that he didn’t take enough shots. Essentially, he didn’t dominate the game how many believe he should’ve, which can be shaped as praise depending on how you look at it, because it’s not as if he was a passive player.

He led the Conference of Champions (as Bill Walton often calls the PAC-12) in two-point field goal attempts, and in the same category, he ranked 15th in the country. Those numbers helped guide him to finishing first in the PAC-12 and 8th in the NCAA for shots made inside the arc.

So while Mobley could have been more aggressive on the offensive end, he still finished with the 15th-highest point total in all of college basketball — a setting not notoriously known for players putting up a high-level volume of shots. Collegiate coaches are strict to their systems, and he played in the same system that Kevin Porter Jr averaged 9.7 points per game, which tells you more about the structures of NCAA offenses than it does about the players that are in them.

He did many great things at USC. He dominated on the defensive end, he showcased his passing ability, scored points efficiently, and crafted more posters than a Walgreens Kiosk. But what he apparently didn’t do was convince the Rockets that he should be the second overall pick.

When I look at Evan Mobley, I don’t see a bunch of “ifs” because what decision-making process has ever been thoroughly completed without wondering if, which is such a simple yet complex question. What I see is a player who’s still writing the chapters of a story that ends with him eventually being the best player in his draft class.