As USC and Evan Mobley prepare for Oregon in the NCAA men's tournament's Sweet 16, NBA scouts have started to entertain the idea that the draft has two quality candidates for the No. 1 overall pick.
The narrative all season has painted Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham as a lock to be selected first. But Mobley's impact and projected fit at the next level have some scouts challenging the assumption that a gap exists between Cunningham and the field.
After scoring 26 points in consecutive Pac-12 tournament games, Mobley is coming off a 10-point, 13-rebound, five-assist, three-block effort in a blowout of Kansas. The timing of his elevated postseason play coupled with Oregon State's knocking off Oklahoma State and holding Cunningham to 6-of-20 shooting have sparked conversations about whether it's worth reopening the case on the nation's top prospect.
But scouts also acknowledge the contrast in roles between the two prospects, and how Cunningham's was never designed for a 19-year-old No. 1 option to efficiently produce or run the table in March. The fact that he led the Cowboys to a tournament berth was considered a surprise and significant accomplishment in itself.
Despite a disappointing finish, Cunningham still put up historic numbers for a freshman while drawing comparisons to Luka Doncic and Grant Hill for his point-wing skill set. The cause for sudden debate about who's the real No. 1 prospect has more to do with Mobley's play than Cunningham's shooting percentages, turnovers or early exit.
The case for Cunningham
Cunningham's combination of positional size (6'8", 220 lbs) for a ball-handler and passing skills helped separate him when he was coming out of high school. But he finished this season with averages of 20.1 points and 2.3 made threes per game on 40.0 percent shooting from deep.
His self-creation and shot-making looked even better than advertised. Cunningham ranked in the 87th percentile this season out of isolation. Compared to recent guards or wings picked in the top five, none was more efficient with at least 50 isolation possessions during their final NCAA season:
Cunningham also led the nation in points in the clutch, per Synergy Sports, as he came alive late to take over numerous tight games.
At 6'8" and with an advanced package of moves for separating into step-backs, pull-ups or drives, Cunningham possesses the body, creation skills and jumper to continue scoring from three levels in the pros. He even shot 16-of-31 out of the post using both hands, while Mobley, a 7-footer, shot just 15-of-39.
He also shot 43.9 percent off the catch, a promising sign for his off-ball scoring that should allow Cunningham to fit with a team that already has an established point guard.
And he possesses special passing instincts that showed more at Montverde Academy, where he was able to focus on facilitating since he was surrounded by projected lottery picks Moses Moody and Scottie Barnes and potential first-rounder Day'Ron Sharpe.
His 3.5 assists per game with Oklahoma State don't accurately reflect Cunningham's playmaking. Teammates spotting up shot only 35.7 percent off of his pick-and-roll passes. The eye test clearly shows special ability tied to his height, vision and IQ.
Skeptics may point to Cunningham's 43.8 percent field-goal mark and 4.0 turnovers per game. And that's fair when discussing a No. 1 pick. But he also registered a 29.1 percent usage rate, combining for 308 isolation, pick-and-roll ball-handling and post-ups possessions in 27 games. He was the lead ball-handler on 70.0 percent of his transition plays.
His workload was monstrous, and his teammates shot just 30.6 percent from three, which affected spacing.
The case for Mobley
On paper, Mobley checks a valuable mix of boxes for a center in today's NBA. And his flashes of versatility have been convincing given their consistency and impact.
Through 31 games, he has finished in double figures in scoring 29 times and with multiple blocks 26 times. He also ranks in the top 10 in the country in offensive and defensive box plus-minus. His 13.7 BPM is fourth-highest for a freshman since 2010 (minimum 800 minutes), behind only three recent No. 1 picks:
On offense, Mobley leaned on his height, quick jump and length, finishing 69.3 percent of his attempts around the basket, mostly as a roll man, dunker's-spot weapon and putback threat. But his ball skills and shooting touch away from the basket expanded imaginations and pointed to upside.
Mobley recorded 72 spot-up possessions, a relatively high amount for a center. On those possessions, he shot 43.5 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts, 8-of-14 on dribble jumpers and 10-of-16 on drives (1.01 PPP). That triple-threat ability to shoot, pull up or drive aligns with a wing's.
Overall, Mobley shot 14-of-29 off the dribble and 12-of-22 on runners, a valuable shot that's rare for a big to have when entering the draft.
A recent big who was similarly effective out of spot-ups in college was Jaren Jackson Jr. (1.03 PPP). But he wasn't nearly as dominant inside (52.3 percent at rim).
Mobley's defense is another obvious selling point, with the 19-year-old averaging three blocks per game. Per KemPom.com, USC ranks No. 5 in the nation in defensive efficiency, and Mobley was clearly the driving force behind the team's improvement (No. 18 last year).
Aside from having tremendous length and reaction time in rim protection, he shows outstanding patience and feel for the whistle. He averaged just 1.7 fouls in 33.8 minutes per game. That's 2.1 fouls per 40 minutes, significantly lower than Jackson's 5.9 with Michigan State or Onyeka Okongwu's 3.5 last year for USC.
And then there is Mobley's switchability and movement around the perimeter, where he demonstrates standout lateral agility when sliding his feet and quickness when getting out on shooters.
Biggest fear with Cunningham
Cunningham surprised scouts this season with his three-point shooting. However, his lack of explosiveness and forced shots led to struggles inside the arc. His 46.1 two-point percentage was lower than that of every recent top-three pick (guard and wings) during their predraft seasons:
Spacing and heavy usage played a role in Cunningham's scoring inefficiency, but when talking about a No. 1 candidate, the bar is higher. The scouting report shows Cunningham excelled when driving left (12-of-21, 90th percentile), but he had significant trouble finishing on the right (5-of-25, 17th percentile).
And he couldn't get his floater to drop (9-of-33), which had something to do with his rushing and forcing runners to avoid rim protection.
Biggest fear with Mobley
Scouts are always asking to see a more aggressive Mobley. And if he wants to gain more steam in the debate with Cunningham, he will have to attack the Oregon defense, which plays the 6'6", 235-pound Eugene Omoruyi at center.
But in the long term, the biggest fear with Mobley revolves around his 210-pound frame. His 14.7 rebounding percentage is noticeably lower than those of recent lottery bigs in their predraft college seasons:
Mobley also ranked in the 24th percentile as a post-up player. Scouts have to ask how much his thin legs and waist, plus limited upper body strength, will affect his inside presence. And does he have enough perimeter skill to compensate the way Jackson has?
Cunningham or Mobley?
Scouts still give Cunningham the edge over Mobley heading into the Sweet 16. Recent draft history may have also created some fear about taking a big over a guard or wing in the top three. The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings look bad for taking Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III instead of Doncic, and early signs point to LaMelo Ball as the better prospect than James Wiseman.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the NBA's worst record, and they'd seem unlikely to draft Mobley over Cunningham with Karl-Anthony Towns already at center. Tanking teams such as the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets figure to be drawn to a creator through whom they can run offense.
But the debate remains open, and it still seems like a couple of dominant performances by Mobley this weekend could sway scouts.
Either way, it sounds like whichever team picks second in the 2021 draft will still feel like it won the lottery.