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Evan Mobley talks All-American honor, NBA draft buzz and keeping his focus

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Evan Mobley had quite a bar to reach this season to meet expectations and the hype that preceded his arrival at USC as a 5-star freshman, one of the top-ranked recruits in the country and a projected future NBA lottery pick.

Per most reasonable expectations, whatever the Trojans were going to be this season largely rested on his 7-foot shoulders.

And fittingly it was that aspect that coach Andy Enfield mentioned first in highlighting Mobley’s inclusion on the Associated Press All-American second team this week — denoting him in the record books as one of the top 10 players in all of college basketball this year.

“That’s quite an honor. It’s our first All-American since we’ve been here at USC,” said Enfield, who is in his eighth year with the program. “We’ve obviously had some excellent basketball players the last few years. Evan will be our sixth NBA player who will be shortly in the league. But what an accomplishment. I think the biggest thing about Evan is he’s a winner, just like Onyeka [Okongwu] was last year. If you have one-and-done players … it’s very important that they help you win games, and Evan has done just an amazing job of buying into the team concept.

“He’s such a hard worker, he’s really improved throughout the season offensively and defensively and he’s a much better player right now than he was just a month ago, so we’re very, very excited for him and happy for him.”

RELATED: Andy Enfield talks life in the NCAA tournament bubble and USC’s preparations

Mobley is indeed the biggest reason — literally and figuratively — that USC (22-7) is back in the NCAA tournament this week for the first time since 2017 and the third time in Enfield’s eight-year tenure.

In averaging team-highs of 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, Mobley was indeed as advertised in what is expected to be his only year of college basketball. He had already joined a most exclusive list last week in becoming the first Pac-12 player and just the second major conference player ever (along with Anthony Davis’s 2011-12 season at Kentucky) to win league player of the year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year honors in the same season. He is the only Division I player averaging at least 16.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocks.

Mobley, who also earned second-team All-American honors from the US Basketball Writers Association, is the first Trojans basketball player to make any All-America team since Sam Clancy was a second-team selection in 2002.

For his part, Mobley said he hasn’t reflected on those feats just yet — “After the season I’m going to really look back and really take it all in,” he said. — but he shared his reaction to the All-American honor.

“It’s great that I was named second team because only a few players in the whole entire college basketball get named that,” he said simply.

Again, this was expected from Mobley — fair or not. He was the No. 4-ranked national recruit in his class per Rivals. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive.

Enfield spoke Wednesday of the development he’s seen from Mobley over the course of this season in carrying those weighty expectations and delivering upon them.

“Defensively, he had to learn how to play team defense and individual defense. When high school players come to the college game, it’s a big learning curve, and Evan picked it up very quickly and was very willing. He had to also adjust to the physicality of the game. In the high school level there may have been a 6-6, 6-7 center trying to post him up — now you have guys who are his size and outweigh him by 30, 40, 50 pounds. So he had to learn to adjust to the physicality on the defensive end, and obviously on offense he had to improve his skill set and also figure out when teams run two players at him — whether it’s in the low post, mid post, perimeter or in the scoring area off the dribble — he had to learn to play against that as well,” Enfield said. “So he’s done a great job in all aspects and we’re excited for him.”

Mobley also touched on what he felt he improved over the course of this season.

“I feel like I improved my shooting a lot more. [Early on] a lot more points came from dunks or layups and gradually throughout the season I’m shooting a lot more mid-ranges and 3s. Because I feel like the teams are playing to my strengths back in the paint so I can’t just get layups and dunks, so I have to adapt and that’s where I feel I adapted,” he said.

Mobley has continued to throw down plenty of dunks, filling up his season highlight reel.

But what was most encouraging was the level to which he took his performance — namely his aggressiveness — during the Pac-12 tournament last week.

In two games against Utah and Colorado on back-to-back nights, he posted identical 26-point, 9-rebound, 5-block stat lines. The 26-point efforts were his season-high, and in the Utah game he scored 13 of USC’s 20 points over the two overtime periods to will the Trojans to victory. His 16 shot attempts against Colorado the next night were then his season-high as he stayed assertive.

“I just know it’s a big stage and big players have to step up to the challenge, so I just tried to step up to the challenge, do everything I possibly could to help my team win every game — from now on especially [it] could be our last game — and treat it that way and just really try to go all out,” he explained a day later.

Indeed, again, however far No. 6-seeded USC is going to go in this NCAA tournament will hinge largely on Mobley.

Speaking Wednesday, he was asked about the process of becoming more comfortable putting the team on his back offensively as he did last week. Mobley’s willingness to always make the smart pass rather than enforce himself on that end of the court had been a talking point at various times this season. He had scored 13 points or less in the five games prior to the conference tournament while only attempting double-digit shots in two of them. He also had the game earlier this season at Utah when he didn’t attempt any shots from the field, but he facilitated the ball and the Trojans won comfortably nonetheless.

Enfield spent most of the season downplaying any questions about whether Mobley needed to be more aggressive at times, realizing he is the best player on the court, but the 7-foot freshman seemed to acknowledge on Wednesday that he is indeed prepared to continue that approach the rest of the way.

“I feel like, yeah, I’m more of a pass-first kind of player. I feel like I’m a pretty good passer overall, but yeah, I feel like I have to be aggressive to help my team win in these next few games,” he said. “I don’t feel like it’s unnatural, but I feel like I usually make the right plays and when two people are on me I feel like the right play is to pass the ball. But a lot of the times they need me to be aggressive, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

As the season has mounted and it became clear that Mobley was as advertised, the game broadcasts usually involved some combination of his NBA draft projections. He’s often mentioned as a potential top-2 overall pick along along with Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham. (ESPN.com ranks as No. 2 in the draft class).

Mobley downplayed any draft talk earlier this week, and for those that have talked to him all season it’s actually believable that he hasn’t been focused on the incredible opportunity awaiting in the near future. He’s as softspoken and humble as any player in the country. While Enfield and the staff may have pulled some more aggressiveness out of his offensive performance of late, no interview question is able to crack the off-the-court mentality.

“I just try to focus on what’s in front of me — not focus on too much into the future. I just try to do what I do on the court to the best of my ability every night,” he said when asked about the draft chatter this week. “… I don’t really pay attention to the media and all that, what they talk about, because it can be a distraction. I just try to stay focused and locked in on what I’m doing.”

That said, he did allow that he knows the spotlight will be on him in a big way this week. He can feel it, and if his play last weekend was any indication, he’s ready for it.

“Yeah, definitely. There’s been a lot of media stuff lately, so I feel the spotlight on me on a lot, but I’m just trying to stay focused and stay ready for the game,” he reiterated.

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