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NBA Rookie Rankings: Evan Mobley Talks Rising Cavs, Transition to NBA

Cleveland's standout rookie opens up about his first season and the biggest adjustment he had to make.

Evan Mobley didn’t need an adjustment period to the NBA. Cleveland’s standout rookie looked perfectly in place from his very first professional contest, a 17-point, nine-rebound, six-assist effort against Memphis.

Mobley’s stock has only risen since. He enters Friday night ranked in the top five among qualified rookies in points, defensive rating and rebounding percentage, and he’s one of only four rookies in NBA history to average at least 15 points, eight rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Mobley was touted as a potential back-line anchor and a heady interior playmaker entering the draft. He’s more than lived up to the billing.

The Crossover spoke with the 20-year-old about his transition to the NBA, the surging Cavaliers and more.

Sports Illustrated: You’ve made a smooth adjustment to the professional game after just one season at USC. Why do you think your game has translated so well?

Evan Mobley: I feel like my skill set and my talent really translates to how the game is played at this level. It was more about getting used to the certain little things with how the game is played. After I got used to that I feel like things came naturally. It was a smooth transition.

SI: What do you enjoy about playing alongside Jarrett Allen in these double-big lineups? Why do you think the pairing works so well?

EM: A lot of teams aren’t seeing that look. When they drive into the paint they usually aren’t seeing two or three 7-footers coming in to block their shot. So it definitely makes it tough on teams to score. It takes away things a lot of teams do relatively easily.

SI: When you take a long-term view of your future in Cleveland, what makes you confident this team can have sustained success?

EM: Well, we’re all pretty young, for one thing. We all get along, we support each other. I can see us getting better and better every year and growing together as much as we can.

SI: What part of the game has provided the biggest learning curve for you?

EM: Probably the schedule and how many games you play, to be honest. It’s a lot different in college where you’re playing way less games. But it’s all right. You’ve got to be resilient, got to take care of your body. I get treatment, I keep lifting. There’s a lot of things I do to maintain myself.

SI: Are there any current or former players you molded your game after?

EM: My favorite player growing up was Kevin Durant. I also like Giannis [Antetokounmpo] a lot, too. I definitely take bits and pieces from different players like Anthony Davis and Kevin Garnett. I’m my own player still, but I take things I can learn from them when I can.

SI: There was a little back-and-forth between Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green regarding who should have been the No. 1 pick. Do you feel any competition with your fellow rookies?

EM: No, not really. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be. I don’t try to focus on anyone else. I just focus on what I can do and what I need to do to help our team be successful.

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SI: So you’re not laying claim to Rookie of the Year just yet?

EM: Nope. I’m good on that for now.

Rookie Rankings

As Mobley keeps a firm hold atop our rookie rankings, let’s cycle through the rest of this year’s class as we head toward February.

1. Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

We’ll return to a more detailed analysis of Mobley’s progression another time. For now, enjoy him dunking all over the reigning Finals MVP.

2. Cade Cunningham, Pistons

Cunningham can’t be dismissed from the Rookie of the Year race with half the season to play, especially as he increases his usage in Detroit’s offense. The No. 1 pick scored 25 points and dished five dimes compared to just two turnovers against Utah last Friday, and he went 14–26 for 34 points in a narrow loss to Denver on Tuesday. Cunningham has the size, smarts and skill to be a quality leading man in this league. Detroit’s main objective at the moment is exploring the depths of his immense talent.

3. Scottie Barnes, Raptors

Barnes continues to be a two-way force each night, though his shooting has taken a serious dip since the calendar turned to 2022. Barnes is shooting just 40.8% from the field and 21.4% from three over his last 11 games, and you still see some hesitation as he lines up non-corner triples. Barrnes still has All-Star potential. The growth of his jumper may determine whether he can become an All-NBA player.

4. Franz Wagner, Magic

Wagner is the most notable bright spot for a team cruising toward the league’s worst record, and it’s not just just the impressive scoring and shooting numbers that stand out. Wagner is now slinging fastballs into the lane and finding streaking cutters as he nears the rim in pick-and-roll situations. This isn’t the outline of a rotation regular. Wagner has the potential to be a franchise anchor for years to come.

5. Josh Giddey, Thunder

Giddey has been in a similar shooting slump as Barnes. But the Aussie point guard continues to manipulate defenses with a slew of head-fakes and ball-fakes, and he’s a more creative finisher than he’s often given credit for. Giddey’s 6’ 8” frame has played a major part in his success, allowing him to see angles that others may not recognize. The Thunder are firmly a lottery team once again, still at least one star away from playoff contention. But as Giddey continues to grow, they should be a feisty opponent on most nights.

6. Herb Jones, Pelicans

Jones deserves plaudits for his continued growth on the offensive end in his first season. He spent most of his first few months as an expert cutter and stationary shooter, but he’s beginning to make some noise off the bounce. Jones is beginning to trust a nascent floater with increasing confidence. He’s getting a sample of opportunity as a half-court initiator. The Pelicans are firmly in the play-in hunt despite a notable share of injury and COVID-19 absences, in part due to Jones’s unexpected breakout.

7. Chris Duarte, Pacers

Indiana’s rookie has largely picked up where he left off since returning to the lineup on Jan. 14, averaging 17.3 points per game on a cool 44.4% from three. Duarte is more than a simple spot-up specialist. He shows some craft as he snakes through the lane in the pick-and-roll, and there’s a supreme confidence as he dances his way to step-back triples in isolation opportunities. Duarte is 24. His ceiling doesn’t necessarily come close to the top players in this draft. But that’s a concern for another day. Duarte is already a professional scorer, one who should carve out a valuable spot in NBA rotations throughout the decade.

Rookie Highlight of the Week: Jalen Suggs, Magic

Welcome back, Jalen Suggs! The No. 5 pick has been playing with confidence since returning from a lengthy absence on Jan. 14, averaging 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game on a healthy 46.4% from the field. Suggs projects to be a stat-sheet stuffer throughout his career even if he never establishes a reliable jump shot, and he should bring a jolt of athleticism on both ends of the floor. He displayed as much on Sunday night.

Rookie Riser of the Week: Ayo Dosunmu, Bulls

Chicago’s rookie put his name on the map as he pestered point guards across the league, and the Illinois product is now making a notable mark on the offensive end. Dosunmu has scored at least 15 points in four of his last six games, including a 24-point effort in a narrow win over Oklahoma City. He’s starting to attack closeouts with some confidence, and when he shoots from three, he’s up to a blistering 48.8% since Christmas. The Bulls are shorthanded in the backcourt for the foreseeable future with Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso out of the lineup. Dosunmu will be increasingly counted on to provide some scoring punch along with his impressive defensive profile.

Rookie Lesson of the Week: Look Past the Percentages

Perhaps this is a crudely constructed method for keeping Rockets fans from hitting the panic button, but it’s important to remember evaluating rookies goes far past a simple check of their shooting percentages. Rookies, and rookie guards in particular, are notoriously inefficient, often hovering near 40% from the field with a shaky turnover rate. Has Jalen Green’s 17–68 stretch from the field over the last six games been ugly? Certainly. Though it’s not as though we haven’t seen difficult stretches from rookies turned standouts (hello, Anthony Edwards) in previous years. Green needs to get stronger. His jumper isn’t quite reliable and he frankly isn’t getting a great whistle at the foul line. These are issues that should solve themselves over time. Green shows enough flashes to keep faith in him as a potential future All-Star even as he limps to the All-Star break. 

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