Behind Evan Mobley’s rise as No. 1 hoops prospect: ‘Basketball had to grow on me’
The versatile 7-foot big man is showing star potential at Rancho Christian
TEMECULA, Calif. — It’s nearing the end of practice, but Evan Mobley is dialed in.
The No. 1 high school basketball prospect in the Class of 2020 doesn’t show a lot of emotion, so it’s hard to tell. But his coaches and teammates at 11th-ranked Rancho Christian know what to look for: a block party.
As an opposing guard blows by a defender and launches a potential scrimmage-winning layup, Mobley enters the fray from the weak side. His sights are set on making a block, but the 7-footer hits another gear — as if someone hit the turbo boost button — and keeps rising. With the ball reaching its apex at the top of the backboard, Mobley catches it with his left hand before what appears to be a slow-motion landing that conjures memories of Dave Chappelle as Prince.
Rancho Christian coach Ray Barefield can only smile in amazement on the sideline as he watches his senior star.
“He is as perfect a basketball player that I’ve ever seen,” Barefield said. “We all know he’s going to be in the NBA. When he picks up weight and if he’s on the right team, he could be an all-star with a big-time career.”
While the focus on high school basketball this year has shined brightly on Sierra Canyon — the Los Angeles-based school featuring LeBron James Jr. and Zaire Wade — the best player in the nation is lurking in Temecula, a city 60 miles north of San Diego known more for wineries and a Kobe Bryant-inspired Twitter beef than producing basketball talent.
Mobley, who has committed to USC, where his brother is a freshman power forward and his dad is an assistant coach, has been ranked at the top of his class since his sophomore season. He boasts a 7-foot-5-inch wingspan, ball-handling skills and a high basketball IQ. Many of the top high school big men have tried to get the upper hand against Mobley — Ziaire Williams, Makur Maker and James Wiseman, to name a few — but couldn’t match his versatility. On Dec. 30, Mobley helped hand Sierra Canyon, now ranked 17th, its first loss of the season. (The two teams will have a rematch on Saturday on ESPN3, 10:30 p.m. ET.)
“I’ve called him a generational talent, and here’s why,” said Etop Udo-Ema, who coached Mobley on the Compton Magic AAU team. “He’s got a mixture of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant in his game, and he’s a great defensive player who can change the course of any game. I’ve been coaching for 30 years and I’ve seen pretty much every top player that has been through Southern California, and if he develops, he can be better than any of them.
“Once he gets bigger and stronger, there is no ceiling for this kid.”
Eric and Nicol Mobley have long been dialed in when it comes to instilling their love of hoops into their sons. There are pictures of Evan and his older brother, Isaiah, holding basketballs as toddlers. And from the moment they began to walk, their father had them doing basketball drills. The first word Isaiah blurted out as a child? Ball.
“I was basically telling them at an early age, ‘You’re not going to be tall and not play basketball,’ ” said Eric Mobley, who played professionally overseas after a college career at Portland and Cal Poly Pomona. “I had them in strollers watching when I played pickup, and I made them dribble basketballs as they recited their ABCs.
“They were going to play, and learn the game.”
Nicol Mobley was all-in, too. As a 6-foot-tall post player, she once won a basketball state championship at Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego.
“Both Eric and I love the game, and since we both played it, we were hoping they would grow up loving it, too,” she said. “We were open as parents to let them pursue what they wanted to do. And we were hopeful they enjoy basketball as much as we did.”
But Nicol, an elementary school teacher, also preached that education would always trump athletics. And Eric, who built his entire life around basketball, wanted to be certain his boys had other options — even buying a piano for them. He was mindful of the withdrawal he suffered when playing the sport was no longer a part of his life.
“I had to get out in the real world and fill out applications for real jobs after my career ended, and it was depressing,” Eric Mobley said. “I missed the attention.”
Still, the boys, who are 20 months apart, gravitated to basketball.
Isaiah was the bigger, stronger and more outgoing of the two. He would attend top camps in the nation and be ranked among the top 20 players. Evan was rail-thin, shorter and more reserved. When he went to camps, he would rank in the top 60 — if he made the list at all. His life didn’t revolve around basketball. Evan enjoyed puzzles (he made quick work of a Rubik’s cube) as well as watching YouTube videos about how things were made.
“I’ll be honest, at one point I wondered, ‘Does he really want to play basketball?’ ” Eric Mobley said.
For Evan, the love wasn’t always there.
“I remember those rec league days, being young and not really wanting to play,” he said. “I remember running up and down the court, and knowing that I was better than a lot of the kids. Basketball had to grow on me.”
And once it did — when he was a 6-foot-4-inch guard in eighth grade — there was no denying basketball would be a part of his future. As a high school freshman, his potential was evident.
“We’d have skill development drills, and I would always make a note of a player’s rate of progression and, with Evan, I had never seen a player respond so fast,” Barefield said. “He was tall and lanky, but he became a different guy — a better player — and each week for 2½ years his footwork, athleticism, jumping, ability to run the floor and defense just got better.”
Soon, Barefield picked up the phone and called Evan’s parents.
“I told them, ‘Hey, this is going to sound weird but if Evan keeps doing this, one day he’s going to be the No. 1 player in the country,’ ” Barefield recalled. “I don’t like to blow kids up like that. But he was becoming that good.”
By that time, Eric and Nicol Mobley were looking at some of the AAU players who were identified as some of the top players in California and saw little difference in talent between them and their sons.
“We would play against [USC freshman] Onyeka Okongwu and the Ball brothers, and they would always be among the top kids at tournaments,” Eric Mobley said. “I would tell them, ‘Why can’t you be that?’ They were long, skinny kids at the time but I wanted them to think that they could be that person.”
While Evan didn’t spend much time playing that piano his parents purchased for the home (“I took a few lessons, but I’ve basically forgotten all of that”), that hasn’t stopped Barefield from comparing the best player he’s ever coached to one of the most influential music composers of all time.
“I compare him to Mozart because all of this just comes easy to him,” Barefield said. “I’ve worked with kids who played college basketball, and it might take them 30, 40 tries before they get the perfect rep. With Evan, show him something one or two times and he nails it.”
One of Evan’s best attributes is his explosive leaping ability, which often leaves defenders flat-footed and defenseless.
— Overtime (@overtime) January 5, 2020
“He’s the best second-jump player I’ve seen since Shawn Marion,” Udo-Ema said. “He has a 40-inch vertical. With that size, that makes him hard to stop.”
In another era, Mobley would be a dominant center. Watch him play and you see elements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Ralph Sampson.
In this age, bigs are comfortable playing on the perimeter as stretch 4s and 5s. While Mobley is familiar with the names of Abdul-Jabbar and Russell, the greatness they achieved while playing strictly in the low-post is both foreign to him and lost in today’s world of analytics, where the 3-point shot reigns supreme.
“We’re well beyond the days where guys play just in the post,” Udo-Ema said. “At Rancho this year, he’s starting to become the point guard when he get rebounds and people are seeing that he can handle and pass. I think Evan can morph into whatever he needs to be, whether it’s Kevin Durant or Kevin Garnett.”
— Overtime (@overtime) September 15, 2019
Eric and Nicol Mobley have kept the birth announcements of their sons. They include the basics: a baby picture, the date of birth, time and weight. But the parents added one extra nugget.
A mention of the two being selected in the NBA draft.
“I’m going to have to find those,” Eric Mobley said. “It has yet to come true yet but next year, if it’s in God’s plan and it happens, that would be pretty amazing.”
It’s a journey that’s been so rapid that it’s felt, for the Mobley family, like a fast-moving train.
“I get different emotions,” Nicol Mobley said. “As a mom, I’m like, this is my kid, he’s just Evan. Then I look at social media and newspaper articles and see everyone talking about my son as the No. 1 player in the country, and I’m like ‘wow.’ I call it positive anxiety. And if I’m going through this as a mom, then what are they going through?”
Evan Mobley, an honor roll student, said he is taking everything in stride.
“I know about the individual ranking, but I just cast that aside,” he said. “The only thing I focus on each time I take the court is to try to be better.”
Mobley is also trying to get his team a state championship, which hasn’t happened at Rancho Christian since the 2015-16 season, the year before Mobley arrived. Then he’ll be off to college, where his father and brother await. He’ll be the first No. 1 hoops recruit to suit up for USC. The expectation, of course, is that it’ll just be a one-year pit stop on his way to the NBA — ESPN currently has him as the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft — but the family is looking forward to being together again on game nights.
“I’ll be wearing the hats of coach and a dad,” Eric Mobley said. “It’s going to be amazing.”
Just like a block party.