Isaiah Mobley leaps for takeoff
It’s the middle of February and men’s basketball is ranked first in the Pac-12.
As Arizona State fights to stay in the game, the Galen Center, often filled with raucous noise, is suffocated to a quiet hush.
Instead of Trojan fans in the stands, it’s cardboard cutouts. Instead of an electric atmosphere, it’s like a pickup game between friends.
The loudest voices in the arena aren’t the fans during the game, but a player, whose game is as loud as his personality. The curly-haired giant just extended the Trojans lead to five with a dunk over a Sun Devil defender and roared loud enough for the entire 213 to hear him.
He’s the player whose March Madness run catapulted the Trojans to the Elite Eight and the one USC will lean on this year.
A gifted athlete, he was simply born to play basketball.
From AAU to No. 1 in California
Junior forward Isaiah Mobley has been playing basketball for as long as he could remember.
The son of former basketball players Eric and Nicol Mobley, Isaiah was introduced to the game early on.
His first exposure to organized basketball came through the Amateur Athletic Union, playing on his dad’s team Triple Threat. In seventh grade, as he traveled across the country playing in various AAU tournaments, he figured something out: Basketball went from a hobby to a potential career.
Mobley enrolled at Rancho Christian High School in Temecula. The addition of Mobley, along with his younger brother Evan, propelled the school into Division 1 play by Isaiah’s senior year.
As a freshman, he didn’t waste any time making his mark on the program.
Behind a 19 point, 16 rebound performance from Isaiah, Rancho Christian won their first CIF-SS championship and first in any sport. Isaiah shared Division 5A Player of the Year honors in 2016, making him the only freshman named player of the year across all men’s and women’s basketball divisions.
Head coach Andy Enfield noticed his unique talent on both sides of the ball when recruiting him.
“[Isaiah] was very dynamic and versatile on offense,” Enfield said. “He was [a] very smart defender and had long arms and really affected the other team when he went to block shots or challenge shots.”
lready one of the top prospects in the country, Mobley joined the illustrious AAU team Compton Magic the summer after. Their 2018 squad became the AAU basketball circuit’s version of the 1992 Dream Team: Isaiah and Evan Mobley, Jarod Lucas and Johnny Juzang rounded out four of the five starters.
All four reached the Sweet 16 of March Madness last season.
“Being around such good players definitely elevated me. We all kept each other accountable. We all keep each other accountable still to this day,” Mobley said. “We’re all very close, and you always want to be the best. I’m a big competitor.”
His experience with Compton Magic took his game to the next level.
Mobley averaged 19.9 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks a game his junior year, leading Rancho to a 28-3 record. His senior year showed a list of triumphs, topped by being the only Californian to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game, that made him the No. 1 recruit in California.
Energetic on the court, Mobley considers himself an extrovert “on and off the court.”
“You can take him anywhere with any crowd, wherever it is and he’ll fit right in with them,” close friend and teammate Ethan Anderson said. “I feel like that translates to on the court to play alongside anybody.”
On the court, he’s the team’s and his own biggest cheerleader — the perfect teammate to have around. Louder than the squeaking sneakers of players, it’s become common for him to be the most rambunctious in the game not just by his voice, but his play too.
“[I] just figured out what kind of works for me. Some people like to hype themselves up super, some people like coming to games real calm or antsy,” he said. “But as long as I prioritize having fun I let my instincts take over [and] I usually end up playing my best basketball.”
USC and March Madness
For Mobley, his freshman year got off to the bumpiest of starts.
A Jones fracture led to surgery with Mobley missing close to five months and the Trojans’ entire preseason foreign tour.
Mobley joined the team for fall camp but, the time off without basketball took a toll on him, and playing catch-up wasn’t easy.
His patience paid off as he was able to return in time for the season. A key contributor on the team, Mobley played in all 31 games.
“He lost about three months of weightlifting and working out in the gym [because of the injury],” head coach Andy Enfield said. “I thought he did a great job of getting back as quickly as he could, helping our team his freshman year.”
Mobley finished the year gaining traction and “playing some of [his] best basketball,” before the pandemic put a wrench in everyone’s plans.
With the time off between his freshman and sophomore season, another big change happened — his brother Evan joined the team. The Trojans got out to a fast start to the season, winning 18 of their first 21 games.
Much can be attributed to Evan’s play, but Isaiah’s role was just as important.
His bubbly personality can be deceiving but, Isaiah is a fearless player. It’s what Enfield loves about him, especially his 7-foot-3 wingspan that made USC one of the top defenses in the country last season.
“He became our best post defender. He could guard bigger players as well as smaller players,” he said. “He was very versatile on the defensive end.”
All his work came to light on the brightest stage in college basketball — March Madness.
The forward strummed a figurative guitar each time he splashed three after three. He looked away at the crowd each time he dropped dimes to his teammates for buckets. And he yelled as loud as he’s ever yelled each time he cocked back dunks to electrify his team and the crowd.
Some might become more anxious playing games with larger implications. For Mobley, it was simple — he was enjoying the moment.
If Evan is considered the unicorn talent in the family, Isaiah is certainly the swiss army knife. He demonstrated that in the biggest games of his career. And, for many, it wasn’t a surprise.
“He was getting back to his old ways in terms of shooting the three off the dribble, and stuff like that,” Anderson said.
Anderson played against Mobley in high school and has witnessed his growth up close.
“He adds a spark to the game,” Anderson said. “Not only in scoring and doing the flashy stuff, but he also in college developed a knack for doing the stuff that really makes a difference, that doesn’t always show up on a stat sheet.”
When the games get tough, those little things can make a huge difference. The tournament was a display of his arsenal. He showcased the inside-out talent he’s been building for years.
Most 6-10 forwards are stiff, terrified of the idea of stepping near the three-point line and handling the ball. Not Mobley — he’s a natural; something he credited his dad with helping.
“My dad always made sure we played both inside and out growing up,” he said. “Keep practicing our skills no matter what position we’re playing. So if we had to go outside [we could do anything meaningful, inside we could do it as well].”
Following his breakout play, Mobley made a smart and cautious decision — declaring for the NBA Draft while keeping his eligibility open. He was invited to the draft combine and was “turning heads” with his play, according to 247 Sports.
The experience turned out to be
extremely valuable, he said.
“It was really cool playing with such great players on my team and playing against and with [them],” Mobley said. “Just learning what it’s like at the NBA level I feel like I can take some of that and apply it to college.”
Even with impressive outings in scrimmages, the Los Angeles Times reported it was still unlikely for Mobley’s name to be called during the NBA Draft. Eventually, he made the choice to run it back another year in hopes of creating “a better body of work before [leaving].”
With his return, the Trojans will be leaning heavily on the forward. Last year’s Elite Eight run was enough to satisfy longtime fans.
However, the expectations are different now with Mobley taking on a role he hasn’t had so far. It’s clear he’s poised to have a breakout year.
“In the past few years, I’ve had roles I had to play in order for us to win. And I had no problem playing with [that],” he said. “But now I feel like this year, I can definitely show my whole bag with scoring, passing, playmaking, defense, everything.”