Heading into the 2023-24 NBA season the hype seemed off the rails for Evan Mobley. The Cleveland Cavaliers' third-year big man was being talked about as a rising superstar, a two-way dominant force ready to lift the Cavs to regular-season heights.
Many an outlet picked Mobley to win Defensive Player of the Year, and nearly all had him placed squarely on the ballot. One year after finishing third in DPOY voting as a sophomore, the sky seemed the limit for his defensive ceiling. Mobley had the strength and length to defend the rim and the foot speed and instincts to defend on the perimeter; he was the perfect package.
The offensive impact hadn't come along in his second season, but with Cleveland adding shooters this summer, it made sense that the court would be opened up and that Mobley would be the key beneficiary. He was a standout finisher on many a list of the top young players in the league. Our 23-and-under draft saw him go fourth, Fansided's 25-under-25 placed Mobley 10th (and behind only Jaren Jackson Jr. and Zion Williamson in terms of big men) and CBS put Mobley at No. 9 on their list.
It hasn't taken long, however, for the bloom to come off the rose. The Cleveland Cavaliers have sputtered to start the season, sitting at 8-8 through 16 games, with a negative point differential. Their defense, which was the best in the league a season ago, is a mediocre 16th, tied with the Sacramento Kings.
It's not fair to pin the Cavs' struggles solely on Mobley, especially given the injury issues this team has dealt with thus far. We aren't talking about fairness here, however, or trying to accurately diagnose what's wrong with Cleveland. We're simply talking about leaguewide excitement about and belief in Evan Mobley. Like it or not, he's being passed up.
Evan Mobley is being passed up
This past weekend, the NBA had just a single nationally televised game, so the bulk of their marketing was centered around which League Pass game they wanted to highlight. Evan Mobley and the Cavaliers were playing on both Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday's game against LeBron James and the Lakers and Sunday's game against Scottie Barnes, Mobley's foil from the 2021 NBA Draft.
Were either game top of the line for the NBA's marketing? They were not, with LeBron-specific coverage secondary to the games they highlighted. On Saturday the battle of "Chet Holmgren and Joel Embiid" was splashed across the front page of NBA.com. Sunday the NBA pushed out notifications to encourage fans to tune into "Victor Wembanyama vs Nikola Jokic".
This year's rookie class has given the league a pair of truly unique big men, "unicorns" in the sense that Mobley has never been. They are excellent defenders from the jump, as Mobley was, but they are bringing versatile offensive skill as well. Mobley's star is being eclipsed by the new kids on the block.
It's not as if the NBA is wrong to be so focused on these two players; their on-court performance is driving the hype. Holmgren dropped 33 points in his showdown with Embiid on Saturday night. On Sunday, Wembanyama put up a preposterous line of 22 points, 11 rebounds, six steals and four blocks.
It's not just two players leapfrogging Mobley, either. Alperen Sengun of the Houston Rockets is off to a blistering start to the season as well, using his deep bag of spins, flips and floaters to average 20.2 points. 9.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in his breakout season. The Houston Rockets have a better record than the Cavaliers, a significantly better net rating and their defense ranks second in the entire league with Sengun starting at center.
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic are on a seven-game winning streak. Jalen Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks broke his way into the starting lineup and was Atlanta's third-best player before missing time due to injury. Rookie Dereck Lively II is starting for the 10-6 Dallas Mavericks and already making a stout defensive impact.
Evan Mobley hasn't been officially shoved to the side, and he has plenty of season and career left to establish himself as an All-Star player. This season, however, his growth has been on the margins; he's rebounded better, been more involved as a passer, refined his cuts to the basket for lob passes. Yet he also has essentially given up on shooting outside of the paint, his averaging more turnovers per game, and his scoring has plateaued.
It's without question that Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren have passed Mobley on anyone's ranking of the best young bigs in the league. Will Mobley continue to slip down the list, or can he start making strides to recapture the leaguewide bleief in what he can become? Winning games will help, but it's up to Mobley to show that he truly is taking strides as a player, or soon he will be simply yesterday's news.