The Evan Mobley Era in Cleveland Cavaliers history tips off Wednesday night when the prize big man of the July draft begins his NBA career on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies.
After a five-star high school career, Mobley burst onto the national map big-time when leading Southern California into the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight last March.
The No. 3 pick in the draft behind guards Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green was kept under wraps most of the preseason, averaging just 25.5 minutes per game, but nonetheless still found time to lead the Cavaliers in rebounds (7.6) and blocks (1.6) while also recording the club’s only double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls.
With Ricky Rubio having been imported to help inspire a young backcourt, and Jarrett Allen retained on a long-term deal to serve as Mobley’s bodyguard, the Cavaliers will be looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers after the 2017-18 season.
The key, according to Rubio and fellow Cavaliers newcomer Lauri Markkanen, is Mobley.
“When you see in just one week the improvement, it’s exciting,” Rubio gushed during training camp. “Can’t wait for the future and how he goes forward.”
Added Markkanen, who was acquired in a trade in August after having spent his first four seasons in Chicago, “He’s going to be a really, really good player. He’s obviously good already, but he’s just going to keep getting better.”
Mobley will get a serious test right out of the chute from the Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr., who came into the league with much the same hype as Mobley when Memphis made him the No. 4 pick in 2018.
The former Michigan State star has averaged 15.4 points in his first three seasons. Coming off a year in which he recorded a career-best 5.6 rebounds per game, the 22-year-old was rewarded this week with a four-year, $105 million contract extension.
Jackson missed the Grizzlies’ first 56 games last year while rehabbing a knee injury suffered the previous season. He wound up taking the court just 16 times, the last two of which being arguably his best, when he averaged 18.0 points in losses to Utah in Games 4 and 5 of their first-round playoff series.
The 2021-22 season started shortly thereafter, with Grizzlies backcourt standout Ja Morant turning the offseason into a lengthy get-to-know-you-better session with his oft-injured sidekick, hoping it would lead to another step forward for the franchise.
Memphis has improved its winning percentage from .268 in 2018 to .402, .466 and .528 last season, earning the Western Conference’s last playoff berth this past May via the play-in tournament.
“That’s really why we were with each other most of the summer,” Morant explained of his relationship with Jackson, “trying to rebuild that chemistry.”
Both Cavaliers-Grizzlies matchups last season came while Jackson was on the sidelines in January. Each team won on the opponent’s home floor, with Andre Drummond spearheading Cleveland’s win before Dillon Brooks was the big scorer when Memphis evened the slate.
Neither will be around for this year’s opener. Drummond is now two teams removed, having landed in Philadelphia after a brief stint with the Lakers, while Brooks is out likely well into November with a broken left hand.
–Field Level Media