Ivan Rabb has no regrets about returning to the California Golden Bears for his sophomore season, even if it meant no NCAA Tournament appearance and potentially diminished draft stock. A potential lottery pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Rabb will have to hope to be stolen late in the first round by a playoff team this Thursday.
Sometimes it’s better to find the right situation in the NBA to thrive. Just ask Jaylen Brown, who was picked highly in the lottery, but by a Boston Celtics team that fleeced the Nets out of ten thousand picks. Boston proceeded to make the Eastern Conference Finals, Brown had some solid moments and flashed potential as a star in the making, and could eventually become a special player who will have time to hone his game and get better.
Rabb is clearly hoping for a similar situation. Just like Brown, Rabb’s game needs polish and development, so a lottery team probably isn’t the right place for him to blossom. Putting him on the bench of an NBA playoff team to give him critical minutes to develop on one side could be a solid place for him.
So what are Rabb’s strengths?
Rebounding: Rabb was one of the best rebounders in college basketball, finishing in the top 200 in offensive rebounding rate (10.7%) and the top 40 in defensive rebound rate (25.6%). Even with two seven footers in Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks being major parts of the rotation, Rabb was the most productive rebounder. Rebounders get paid highly in the NBA—if Ivan can keep a nose for the ball, he’s going to have a career there.
Defensive potential: It probably didn’t get seen a ton because Kingsley Okoroh was the block machine and got most of the attention, but Rabb showed he has the mobility to switch onto guards and be effective at bodying up against post players. He still has trouble with his footwork on the perimeter and can’t quite contest effectively at the rim the way a traditional big can. But with enough training and conditioning you’d figure he can learn a ton of these skills effectively.
His athleticism fits extremely well into the new NBA: If Rabb was thrown into the NBA a decade earlier, I’d worry that he’d be a little too small to handle the responsibilities of a big man—Rabb’s frame is a little slight to bang in the post for long, and there are current limits to his game. But in a small-ball league where centers are getting chased off the court in record fashion, Rabb’s 6-10, 7-2 wingspan fits perfectly into what teams would like to see athletically in a modern basketball big.
When Rabb was on the floor, Cal played like a top 25 team. Sometimes top 5: Rabb had a net rating of +29.5 in 2016 (Cal averaged an incredible 124.8 points per 100 offensive possessions last year, while putting up a defensive rating of 95.3) and that net rating was still very impressive in 2017 despite a down year at +18.3 (109.9 offensive rating, 91.6 defensive rating). That sort of tangible value has to mean something (even if it just means Cal had no backup for him).
What does Rabb need to improve upon to get better at the next stage?
Offense: Offense, offense, offense. Cuonzo Martin’s teams were defensively brilliant but offensively lacking, and Rabb suffered as a result. Rabb still has a lot to learn about operating in a modern NBA offense. There was virtually no chance for him to operate in pick and roll this season. Rabb’s game was relegated to the post and scoring on post-ups, where he was never extremely efficient.
Rabb's offensive profile stayed relatively constant from his freshman to sophomore season, with post-ups being his most used possession type, accounting for 38.4% of his total possessions logged by Synergy Sports Technology. Rabb wasn't a very effective post scorer against collegiate defenders, posting a mediocre mark of 0.75 points per possession per Synergy Sports Technology. While he has displayed some skill with his footwork to beat his defender, he has struggled when he has needed to use strength to back his man down or explosiveness to rise above his defender. He has shown that he can be someone who can score from time to time with his back to the basket and he passes well enough (1.9 assists per 40 minutes) to not be a black hole when he gets the ball, but he will need to get stronger, tougher and more assertive finishing through contact to be a reliable scorer inside the paint in the NBA.
Jump shot: Rabb’s inability to punish teams from the outside was a big factor in how Cal’s offense stagnated this season. I don’t know who was in charge of Cal’s shooting this season, but Rabb regressed from a true shooting percentage of 63.5% his freshman season (61.5% FG, 66.9% FT, 1-2 on threes) to 54.1% his sophomore year (48.4% FG, 66.3% FT, 8-20 on threes).
Rabb’s jump shot has never looked right—you’d have to guess a good shooting coach can fix the hitch, because if he could start making that 20 footer he’d be plenty deadly. Rabb has already shown the potential to knock down threes, so he knows where the game is headed and the type of shots he’ll need to knock down.
Foul trouble: Could be Pac-12 refs, could be overall scheme, but Rabb ended up on the bench a little bit more than you’d like to see. Rabb was a victim of ‘two quick foul syndrome’ a lot, sitting sometimes 10-12 minutes in games where he was needed for 34 to 36 minutes. One caveat is that Rabb is good at figuring out how to avoid fouling out—he only averaged 3 fouls a game last season after the early trouble. Being smarter to avoid contact will be a critical part of development.
Tweener: Rabb is still struggling with that moniker, as he’s a little too small to play a lot of center minutes and not quite mobile enough to be a constant power forward. Until he can find a defined position for himself, he’s going to struggle to find a starting role in the NBA, and teams will have to figure out how to juggle him with bench units.