With the halfway-point in the 2022-23 NBA season nearly upon us, it’s time for another check-in with former Trojans plying their trade in the pros.
Power forward Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
While Mobley’s slight stagnation offensively has probably disappointed USC and Cleveland fans alike, the near-7-footer remains key to Cleveland’s success on both sides of the floor. The addition of Donovan Mitchell has limited Mobley’s time on the ball to work out the kinks in his offense, but his efficiency has still improved from last season. According to Basketball Reference, Mobley’s effective field goal percentage has increased to 56.1% from last season’s 52.2%, with his field goal attempts per game dropping from 12 to 10.5. Even on low volume, the Cavs can count on Mobley to make big-time shots. In a low-scoring game against the Phoenix Suns last week, Mitchell drove to the rim and kicked the ball out to Mobley, who nailed a jumper from just inside the free-throw line to win the game. More important than Mobley’s point-scoring, though, is his defense. Just as he displayed while at USC, Mobley can both track opponents’ guards and wings to the perimeter or lock down the post alongside center Jarrett Allen. His fluidity and versatility are a key component to the Cavs’s league-best 109 defensive rating. In a crowded field, Mobley won’t earn All-Star honors this season, but he’s still on track to be a top-20 player in the league sooner rather than later.
Guard-Forward DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
Regardless of DeRozan’s personal success, the Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season after pushing all of their chips to the middle in 2021-22. The Bulls sit in 10th-place in the Eastern Conference, with the 9th-worst record in the NBA, looking more like a team that should blow it all up for a lottery pick than a conference finalist. Despite that, DeRozan has averaged 26.4 points per game and gets to the free-throw line over 8 times per game, showing his usual scoring aggression and nous. While DeRozan’s 3-pointer improved to a career-high 35.2% in 2021-22, it has fallen back to earth this season at 27.1%, proving last season’s number was a fluke, not the norm. If the Bulls choose to start rebuilding (which they should), DeRozan is one the first players who could be dealt. He would be a quality secondary or even tertiary scorer on another team. The Compton native nearly signed with the Lakers in 2021, so maybe a return to Los Angeles still makes sense. The Lakers would certainly have to clear Russell Westbrook’s salary and send their two remaining future firsts to Chicago to acquire DeRozan, but considering the Pelicans own the Lakers’s 2023 first-round pick, they have no motivation to tank. DeRozan would help that weak Lakers’ roster contend in the playoffs. The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 9, so the Bulls must make a decision on their star forward’s future soon.
Center Nikola Vučević, Chicago Bulls
If the Bulls throw in the towel on the 2022-23 season, they will likely have a harder time finding suitors for Vučević than for DeRozan. Now in his 12th season, the Montenegrin big man hasn’t yet proven how he can contribute to a legitimate title contender. While his scoring remains decent (16.8 points per game this season on 58% effective field goal percentage), the Bulls are 21st in defensive rating and Vučević has a plus/minus of -57. Vučević alone does not bear the burden for those woes, but the NBA has a lot of excellent big men and Vučević does not seem capable of going toe-to-toe with Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokić. If the Bulls revert to tanking, Vučević will most likely remain for the rebuild while Zach LaVine and DeRozan get moved.
Forward-Center Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks
In his third season, Okongwu has established himself as a staple piece in Atlanta, playing 23.9 minutes per game on average, nearly double the figure from his rookie season. While the Hawks acquisition of Dejounte Murray hasn’t propelled them to the top of the East as they hoped, they’d undoubtedly be worse off without Okongwu’s energy on the glass. Okongwu’s averaging 7.2 rebounds per game, with 2.7 on the offensive end. With Clint Capela’s recent injury, Okongwu has stepped into the starting lineup and contributed immediately. In a road game at Golden State last week, he played 38 minutes and had a 16-point, 12-rebound double-double as the Hawks took the Warriors to double overtime, losing by just two points. The Hawks may not make it past the play-in games, but Okongwu continues to prove his worth at the NBA level.
Guard De’Anthony Melton, Philadelphia 76ers
With the fifth and final selection, it’s imperative to highlight De’Anthony Melton’s role as a 3-and-D guard in the 76ers’ system. Melton is playing the most minutes per game of his five-season career so far with 30.1, firmly in Head Coach Doc Rivers’ rotation. The former Memphis Grizzly has also posted 40.3% from three-point range while taking 6.1 triples per game, the highest number of his young career. If the 76ers have any hope of advancing past the first round of the playoffs, they will need Melton and other rotation guys to keep shooting well from range.
With most of the NBA’s USC presence concentrated in a tough Eastern Conference, there will be plenty of tense Trojan-versus-Trojan matchups down the stretch as playoff seeds are decided.
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