No championship team is complete without at least a few refined diamonds in the rough.
The Miami Heat made their way to the 2023 NBA Finals while playing seven undrafted players, including now-Cleveland Cavaliers forward Max Strus. The Denver Nuggets would ultimately win the 2023 NBA championship with center Nikola Jokić, a former second-round selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. Jokić grew into a two-time NBA MVP and five-time All-Star over his eight seasons in the NBA after being added to the same Nuggets draft class as center Jusuf Nurkic and guard Gary Harris.
The Cavaliers may have found a few of their own over the last few seasons.
Cleveland took two potential diamonds in the rough with the No. 49 pick in the last two NBA Drafts in forwards Emoni Bates and Isaiah Mobley. They joined a list of No. 49 selections since 2005 that includes former New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn, now-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Isaiah Joe and former Brooklyn Nets forward Andray Blatche, as highlighted by a Tuesday tweet from Across The Cavs. O’Quinn would spend eight years in the NBA with the Knicks, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. Joe would average a career-high 9.5 points per game and a 40.9% 3-point percentage during his first season with the Thunder and his third in the league.
Can Bates and Mobley find ways to shine brightly on Cleveland’s roster after their first few seasons in the NBA?
Bates has shown signs of potential during this year’s Summer League and NBA preseason. The former Eastern Michigan forward averaged 17.2 points and six rebounds per game in a July run that saw Cleveland win the NBA Summer League title. He scored 19 points and dished four assists in the championship game, highlighting the night with a chase-down block on Rockets guard Trevor Hudgins in the third quarter.
Bates continued to show flashes of potential during the first three games of the 2023 NBA preseason. The 19-year-old forward has averaged 12.7 points and three rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. He hit 45% of his 6.7 3-point attempts per game, finding success from the wings and left corner as the Cavs worked through their preseason schedule. He hit four of his nine long-range shots in a 120-89 win over Maccabi Ra’anana on Monday, paving the way to scoring a team-leading 16 points while adding three rebounds and one assist.
“We are extremely fortunate that Emoni was there at (No. 49),” Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff said, via a Monday video from the Cavaliers. “I believe that Emoni is fortunate to be here also because I think the pairing works. I think for his development, his advancement over his career, being here works.
“But I also believe like if Emoni would have gone in the lottery, he’d have been the type of player who’d have been in the Rookie of the Year conversation. But, again, we are extremely fortunate that he’s here with us. I look forward to working with him for a long time.”
The Cavs took Mobley with the No. 49 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The former USC forward showed he could be a valuable part of Cleveland’s roster in the future following impressive runs with the Cleveland Charge and in the Summer League. He recorded a season-high 18 points, three steals and two blocks in a 24-point win over the Orlando Magic during the waning days of the 2022-23 regular season.
“He is a very good rotational piece on a team,” Bickerstaff said in an April postgame conference. “He’s even better with better players. He just has a knack for the game, an understanding for the game. He’s continued to work on his shooting, he’s improved in that area. But, similar to Evan (Mobley), they have elite IQs and have a high understanding of the game.
“Credit to their pops for teaching the game the right way. They understand it. They get it.”
Cleveland didn’t have to look too far outside of the draft to find high-potential contributors in the offseason.
Guard Craig Porter Jr., the last of Cleveland’s two-way options, notched 12 points and six assists in Monday’s win over Maccabi Ra’anana. The Cavaliers signed Porter Jr. after he spent three seasons with the Wichita State Shockers. The 6-foot-2 guard shared his expectations for his rookie season during a Monday media conference.
“Just really contribute any way it is,” Porter Jr. said, via a Monday video from the Cavs. “Whether it a minute per game, 30 seconds, just make winning plays.
“I’ve always been a role player my whole career, so I kind of understand what it takes. Really, winning is the big thing in my mind. Whatever it takes for me to win, I’m going to do.”
Diamonds can be created under a healthy share of pressure.
Cavs forward Evan Mobley carved out a spot on the All-NBA Defensive First Team after playing in an average of just over 34 minutes during the first two years of his NBA career. Guard Darius Garland earned his first All-Star selection in the 2021-22 season, when he played in an average of 35.7 minutes during the 68 games he played and started in that year. Garland’s usage percentage, or “the percentage of team plays used by a player when they are on the floor,” was at 26.2% in the 2022-23 NBA regular season, according to NBA.com. The figure put him 0.1% behind Jokić and 0.4% behind Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook.
Still, a low-pressure approach may be ideal for Bates and Mobley to shine in the future.
Bates may still need a few seasons to refine his game with two-way contracts before he officially makes the leap to the Cavaliers. If he can continue to flash the potential he showed before the 2023-24 NBA regular season, he and Isaiah Mobley could be fantastic fits on Cleveland’s roster sooner rather than later. Mobley has already spent one season with the Charge, garnering 21.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game in the 32 games he played between the G League’s regular season and its Winter Showcase.