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With only one game left in the preseason before they open their season in Memphis against the Grizzlies, things have looked par for the course for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They're not trying to head into the season looking to actively lose. In fact, the only Eastern Conference team who can safely claim that moniker are the Orlando Magic. Although the Cavaliers are still 1-3 in preseason play, with their lone win coming over an Atlanta Hawks team that was missing superstar guard Trae Young they are what they mostly were last year – a young, inexperienced team trying their damnedest on a night-to-night basis.
That youth and inexperience are going to lead to plenty of growing pains and losses as well. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas are projecting the Cavaliers to win somewhere around 26.5 games this season. If I were a betting man, I would put a decent chunk of change on the under for that. Mind you, that's no disrespect to the organization nor their roster and coaching staff, it's just the reality of the situation. Cleveland largely stayed the same from last season, all while the rest of the Eastern Conference got better. In all likelihood, there's a good chance the Cavaliers are picking a high-end prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft. It's going to be frustrating for fans of the team, and likely some within the organization, but, again, it's just the reality of the situation.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom for Cleveland heading into this season. Evan Mobley, who the Cavaliers selected third-overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, has been a revelation during preseason play. In four games Mobley is averaging 9.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals. Now, if you looked at just his counting stats, you'd think Mobley isn't making a huge impact while on the floor. That's a totally fair critique to have of Mobley's game. But, it should be taken with a grain of salt since traditionally speaking, big men take longer to adapt to the NBA – Mobley included.
Instead, what fans should be looking at to where Mobley started back during Las Vegas Summer League compared to now for Cleveland. Granted, a lot of that can be credited to the substantial upgrade in quality in terms of the teammates Mobley has in Vegas compared to Cleveland. No disrespect to Matt Ryan and Chandler Vaudrin, but they don't hold a candle to the likes of Collin Sexton or Darius Garland. Due to the improved quality of life, along with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff using Mobley creatively on both ends of the floor. In turn, you're able to see actual, tangible growth on Mobley's end and that's exciting to watch in real-time.
“I feel like I’m growing as a player a lot,” Mobley said. “Making different strides in different areas. Trying to just work on my game and keep adding different things gradually throughout the year. I feel like I have made pretty good strides so far.”
There are just so many little things in Mobley's game that he's made improvements on from his debut with the Vegas Cavaliers to his time now with the main club. On defense, his incredible ability to protect the rim translated instantaneously from his time in college to Las Vegas to now. But, a recent. but fun, development is his ability to switch out onto the perimeter after manning the interior. Mobley recently showcased this against Atlanta guard Kevin Huerter and on one possession shut Huerter's water off completely.
Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley contests a shot attempt by Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter.
Mobley will be joining a defensive unit of Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro, one Eastern Conference executive described the Cavaliers as a team that will be, "nearly impossible to score on some nights." This will give Bickerstaff a plethora of options to set Cleveland up for success defensively and will their system will be much more adaptive on a night-to-night basis.
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"I think the system’s gonna fit him perfectly," said Lauri Markkanen. "The defensive instincts and length that he has. He can get up from the floor really quick. I think it’s really tough to score on him. He’s going to be a really, really good player. He’s obviously good already, but he’s just going to keep getting better. I’m just proud of how he works. I think that’s just the more time he gets. … I mean, we haven’t started the regular season yet, and he’s improved so much.”
Speaking of Markkanen, Mobley has recently shared with the media that he has been working with the Finnish big man one-on-one to improve his three-point shot. That was one of Mobley's biggest bugaboos coming out of college and, so far, hasn't put enough three-point attempts to gauge whether or not it'll be a staple of his game during his rookie season. But, the fact that Mobley wants to work with Markkanen, an elite three-point shooter, is encouraging.
What's also encouraging is Mobley's willingness to become a playmaker and creator for the Cavaliers offensively. There have been plenty of possessions where Bickerstaff has brought the ball up the floor to initiate Cleveland's offense, and so far it's had moderate success. Not only that, but Mobley is starting to call plays in the flow of the team's offense – like a pick and roll with Markkanen in the team's loss at home to the Chicago Bulls. The maturity, and poise, that Mobley possesses on offense already is plenty to get excited about. But, when you start to break down his potential, it feels like the limit does not exist for Mobley's true ceiling.
“I think he has a lot of potential,” said Ricky Rubio. “The time will come. The challenge will. If you see video of how he played the first game against Chicago to tonight it seems like it’s been two different seasons and it’s just been a week. It’s how he picks things up really quick. How he does everything for the team. That’s a good sight when you see from just one week that much improvement. It’s exciting.”
Mobley won't lead Cleveland out of the shadow of LeBron James in his rookie season nor do the Cavaliers want him to. The luxury of being on such a young team is that Mobley can grow, and learn, from his mistakes alongside the rest of his teammates as they grow and improve together. Sure, there will be plenty of growing pains, especially with Mobley needing to add more muscle mass to hang with truly elite big men like Joel Embiid. But, there's still a lot of momentum for Cleveland to build upon heading into this season already.
Knowing this along with his potential and what we've seen so far, Cleveland might have found their saving grace in Mobley to get them where they want to be one day. The term unicorn is one of the most overblown in today's NBA but, with Mobley, it's not hyperbole. Sure, for now, this franchise is Garland's to lose. But, one day soon Mobley will join him in the sun and will help the Cavaliers accomplish wonders together.
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