MILWAUKEE — EVAN MOBLEY steps beyond the 3-point line to set a screen for Donovan Mitchell, a two-man tandem the Cleveland Cavaliers hope will carry them into the future.
It’s the first quarter during a matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks — the first of two November road tests for the young Cavs against the veteran Bucks — and the pick-and-roll is executed to perfection. Mobley gives Mitchell an edge over Bucks guard Jevon Carter and then the Cavs 7-footer goes racing toward the rim with both Carter and Brook Lopez focused on Mitchell.
A bounce pass splits the defenders and gives Mobley the momentum as he heads toward the basket. The last obstacle in his way slides over: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
However, on this exchange, the 21-year-old gets the better of the two-time MVP. Antetokounmpo’s attempt to help is too late, and by the time he jumps, Mobley is throwing down a two-handed dunk.
Although Mobley and the Cavaliers jumped out to an early advantage in this first meeting, the Bucks and Antetokounmpo came away victorious in both games, winning by 15 points each time.
« They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, we haven’t experienced, » Mitchell said. « That’s playoff basketball. »
Despite dropping both games to the Bucks, the Cavaliers are off to a 15-9 start this season, good for third place in the Eastern Conference with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. But what sets the Bucks apart is the presence of Antetokounmpo. His evolution from scrawny, little-known rookie to the league’s best player has given Milwaukee an edge — and given Cleveland a blueprint for what it would like to do with Mobley as he and the Cavs challenge the Bucks for Eastern Conference dominance.
WHEN GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO came into the league, he was far from « the Greek Freak, » the player who’d win two MVP awards and Defensive Player of the Year and end the Bucks’ 50-year title drought.
He was an 18-year-old, 6-foot-9, 190-pound kid fresh out of Greece before he became one of the best players of his generation, undergoing one of the most radical body transformations the NBA has ever seen in the process.
Last season, after Mobley’s first matchup with Antetokounmpo, the Cavaliers showed him pictures of a young Antetokounmpo, and the message was clear.
« If you do these things, this is the transformation that you can make and the impact that it has on your game, » Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff told ESPN. « It was kind of a window in the future for him. »
Bickerstaff was clear not to put too much pressure on Mobley. He wasn’t setting the expectation that Mobley will win multiple MVP awards or become a perennial All-Star starter. He was simply establishing Antetokounmpo as the prototype for the modern NBA player, and urging Mobley to use him as a template for what was possible for a player with a similar skill set and body type.
« [Mobley] has a ton of respect for the players that are great in this game and he is competitive enough to want to be better than them, » Bickerstaff said. « But he also respects their journey and how they got there and is not afraid to take things from them. He takes immense pride in being himself. He doesn’t want to be the next Giannis or the next whoever, he wants to be Evan Mobley. But he is willing to watch people’s commitment and match and exceed their commitment, so that he can be the best that he can be. »
Even Antetokounmpo acknowledges the mission for the Cavs is more complicated than simply telling Mobley, « Go be like Giannis. »
« People my size cannot move the way I move. I just try to perfect it as much as I can because I understand it’s a difference-maker, » he said. « I understand the way I move, the physicality I bring to the game, it’s big. I’ve seen people before me, MJ, Kobe, KG, LeBron, Shaq, all those guys they were like, had to be physical. It wasn’t only skill, they were very physical players. »
Still, Mobley doesn’t have nearly as far to go as Antetokounmpo did in the early stages of his career. He was the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2020, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and a full-time starter from day one with the Cavaliers. He averaged 15 PPG in his first season and finished as a runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting.
Antetokounmpo’s path to stardom was longer and more unlikely. He played in Greece’s second division before being drafted 15th overall in 2013, coming into the NBA as a relative unknown.
« I didn’t know who Giannis was until he was Giannis, » Mobley, who turned 12 a few days before Antetokounmpo was drafted, told ESPN.
In his second year in the NBA, the same stage Mobley is in now, Antetokounmpo was still an unfinished product. At 20 years old, he averaged 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists for a 41-win Bucks squad. His body transformation, which would take him from 190 pounds to 245 pounds (he also grew 2 inches, to 6-foot-11) had barely begun.
« I understood that I was 18 and I had to get stronger in order for me to survive in this league, » Antetokounmpo told ESPN. « It was going to be my main focus whenever I went to the gym. I lifted my weights, tried to eat right, tried to sleep right and I could see that as I got older, my body was changing. It didn’t just happen overnight. »
Since their first meeting in December 2021, Mobley has continued studying video of Antetokounmpo and other big men across the league he wishes to learn from, although he remained focused on forging his own path. But the way Antetokounmpo transformed his body continues to be the model.
« He’s young, still really young, has a long way to go, but he’s working hard everyday, » Cavs forward Dean Wade told ESPN. « He’s like a sponge. Anything you say, he absorbs everything. It’s really exciting to watch him keep growing even from last year to this year, it’s ridiculous. He put on so much muscle.
« Practicing against him every day just kind of sucks because defensively he’s everywhere. He can be in the lane and still contest a shot outside the lane. It’s crazy. He’s the one. »
Mobley came into the league listed at 215 pounds and is still listed at that weight. He said he put on some weight during the offseason but admitted it was hard to keep the extra pounds on once games began.
« It takes a while for your body to get to where you exactly want it to, but you’ve just got to stick with it and keep working, » Mobley said. « I felt like [the photos of Antetokounmpo as a rookie] were more so saying the transition is possible. It’s not like you’re going to be a certain way the whole time. It just shows the possibility, if you just stick with something and work at it, you can get to where you want to get too. »
In his second season, Mobley is ahead of where Antetokounmpo was at this stage in his career. In 22 games, Mobley is averaging 15.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He’s one of the anchors of the Cavs’ defense with Allen but often is still trying to find his way on an offense that runs through his All-Star backcourt of Mitchell and Darius Garland.
Still, the Cavs have not put a ceiling on what the future holds for Mobley — and neither has the man he’s using as inspiration.
« It’s a matter of time before he has a breakout season and becomes one of the best power forwards in the league, » Antetokounmpo said. « The skill set and the body, the body is there. But it’s up to him if he’s going to work hard and fight through adversity to insert himself among the best in the league. »