Draft Central presented by Draft Kings
Draft Central presented by Draft Kings

51 years after taking Bob Lanier, could the Pistons go for another unique big man at No. 1?

Evan Mobley
Southern Cal freshman Evan Mobley brings a unique skill set to the NBA as a 7-footer with playmaking potential and extreme defensive versatility
John McCoy/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: The Pistons won the NBA draft lottery for the first time in franchise history last week and general manager Troy Weaver said there were five players who were legitimate candidates to be the top pick. Pistons.com today starts a five-part series looking at the consensus top-five prospects in the draft with an examination of Southern Cal freshman Evan Mobley.)

The last time the Pistons had the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick, they used it to draft a thoroughly unique big man. Bob Lanier had the heft of an NFL lineman but the feet of a ballet dancer, hands as soft as they were enormous. Had he come along a few generations later, he’d have been at the forefront of the stretch-five movement with his shooting touch.

Evan Mobley is every bit as unique as Lanier was a half-century ago when the Pistons took him No. 1 overall in 1970 despite the fact he was coming off a devastating knee injury suffered at the Final Four, though Mobley’s body type is about 180 degrees from Lanier’s.

That’s about the only thing close to a red flag on Mobley, who swept conference honors in the Pac-12 as a freshman and in many years would be the no-brainer overall first pick in the NBA draft. That first pick belongs to the Pistons this season and it’s a certainty that Mobley was one of the “five guys” Pistons general manager Troy Weaver had in mind when he talked about the number of players who would be under serious consideration with the top pick the Pistons won in last week’s NBA draft lottery.

Here’s the lowdown on Mobley:

NO. 1 PICK CANDIDATE: Evan Mobley

ID CARD: 7-foot-0 center/forward, Southern Cal, 20 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 3rd by The Athletic, 2nd by ESPN.com, 3rd by Bleacher Report, 2nd by The Ringer, 2nd by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: There’s a lot to like about Mobley, an incredibly lithe 7-footer with the feet and hips of a guard and the ballhandling ability of a wing. Mobley’s ability to get the ball off the backboards and lead the fast break is a rare trait for a legitimate 7-footer. There’s a world in which whole offensive sets start with Mobley at the top of the key with the ball in his hands to play off the dribble – and if he gets to the point where he can do that efficiently, good luck matching up with him. Mobley didn’t play with an especially gifted group of teammates at Southern California so his assist numbers (2.4 per game) don’t accurately reflect his playmaking potential, but the glimpses of his vision and passing skills indicate he could be used in a broad playmaking role. Mobley didn’t shoot a ton of 3-pointers (40 in 33 college games, making 30 percent), but the tools are there to develop a reliable 3-point shot in short order. As a defender, Mobley projects to have an Anthony Davis-like impact with his wingspan and lateral agility. Mobley only took 10 shots a game for the Trojans to average his 16.4 points a game. In the faster-paced NBA game with more possessions and far more spacing, his scoring should come more easily. Like Davis, Mobley became the first player from a major conference to sweep his league’s Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year awards since Davis did it for Kentucky in 2012.

SCOUTS WONDER: Mobley’s frame is about the only long-term concern on his profile. He was listed at 210 pounds and while natural physical maturity combined with a sophisticated NBA training regimen surely will help him gain functional strength, he’s a naturally slender player who’ll always be limited in his ability to withstand physicality. It’s not nearly the liability it might have been a generation ago, but it still matters. Look, Mobley is going to have a slew of physical advantages over 98 percent of his matchups, but he’s going to be challenged to be an average rebounder in the NBA at least early in his career until he makes incremental strength gains and learns how to compensate for what he’ll give away in that department. And while Mobley’s ballhandling and skills level is well advanced for a big man, it remains to be seen whether he can tie it all together well enough to be trusted to be something more than an occasional playmaker. If the 3-point shot doesn’t come around, his ceiling will be lowered a few floors. At Southern Cal, Mobley was head and shoulders the most talented player on a roster that also included his brother – Isaiah Mobley, 6-foot-10, is a borderline NBA prospect – but he seemed hesitant to assert himself more forcefully.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 10.2 – That’s how many rebounds Mobley averaged per 40 minutes – 8.7 per game – in college where his physical advantages were even more pronounced than they’ll be in the NBA and his strength limitations were less of a hindrance. It’s not a bad number, necessarily, but it’s far from the dominance one might expect from a player with elite athleticism, length and quickness.

MONEY QUOTE: “He’s more passive than I like from a top-three pick. He’s extraordinarily gifted. He’s a top-three pick because of those gifts. There’s just something there where I feel like he can take over every game at the college level and he doesn’t.” – An anonymous NBA assistant general manager as told to Sam Vecenie of The Athletic

BOTTOM LINE: Mobley’s rare physical gifts give him an elevated floor for what he can be in the NBA even if he doesn’t develop a strong 3-point threat or add enough strength to become more dominant near the rim. His rim protection (2.9 blocks per game) and lateral agility will make Mobley the rare big man who can’t be played off the floor when teams go small. He can pair with a more traditional big man if his team wants to gain a size advantage without sacrificing defensive integrity or versatility. The X factor for Mobley will be how skilled and efficient he can become as a ballhandler/playmaker as it could take years for the NBA to catch up to a 7-foot pick-and-roll operator. He’s a viable candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick and extremely unlikely to make it past No. 3.

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