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Ivan Rabb is college hoops’ best returning draft prospect

Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

For any highly valued NBA prospect, foregoing the draft and returning to school is risky. That’s exactly what California’s Ivan Rabb did in the spring. He now enters his sophomore season rather than his rookie year for a lottery team. The 6’10” power forward rejoined the Bears to hone his craft in a bigger role, with a chance to improve his already-robust draft stock.

Rabb finished his freshman campaign with 12.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game on 62 percent shooting. His imposing length, skills and energetic playing style gave Cal a strong post presence on offense and a rangy interior defender. With Jaylen Brown, Jordan Matthews and Tyrone Wallace turning pro, Rabb will see an increase in minutes, touches and versatility in 2016-17.

Despite his underwhelming athleticism, Rabb has the potential to become a potent two-way threat in the NBA. He has the right blend of talent and upside to be the first non-freshman picked in the 2017 draft.

Rabb is promising low-post cog, with a chance to grow into a lethal, polished scorer at the next level. During his freshman year, he looked comfortable setting up on either block and playing with his back to the basket.

He does a great job of feeling the defender’s position, pivoting and timing his pump fakes. Rabb is most comfortable using up-and-under moves turning over his right shoulder (and finishing with his left hand), but he can also finish strong on the other side.

Some NBA matchups will be tough for Rabb because he’s not an explosive leaper. He can’t rely on sheer athleticism to score over opponents. Fortunately, he has a 7’2” wingspan and a 9’0” standing reach, and more importantly, has sharp instincts around the bucket.

Here is a sampling of his back-to-the-basket production from last season. Note how he adjusted to the defense and found good angles to finish:

Rabb will also be a decent pick-and-roll player due to his length and scoring touch. He has good footwork and timing when cutting to the rim, and he’ll smoothly adjust to opposing defenses. However, he won’t be a top-tier pick-and-roll finisher because he can’t fly over the crowd.

Rabb won’t do much damage as a face-up attacker, either. Aside from the occasional jab step or sweeping one-dribble foray, his slashing game is limited. He doesn’t quite have the combination of foot speed, handles and shiftiness to break down opponents from the wing or top of the key.

As is the case with many young big men, Rabb’s offensive ceiling will ultimately be determined by jump-shooting. He didn’t take a ton of jumpers last year, and his shooting form needs to be straightened out.

His right elbow flails out “chicken-wing” style when he raises up, and his release point is too far to the left. As Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com demonstrates in this scouting profile, Rabb must keep his shooting arm in line with the hoop and develop a more consistent release point.

Here’s Rabb’s shot chart from 2015-16, which illustrates his small sample size from beyond 15 feet:


It’s encouraging that he shot better than 40 percent from the right side, including 48 percent from the right elbow extended. Rabb must build on that sliver of success to become a reliable mid-range shooter. It’s the only way he’ll get more minutes than a mop-up man and be a legitimate 4-man.

Rabb will supplement his offensive production on the glass. He’s not yet bulky enough to impose his well every night in the NBA, but he’s scrappy and will gradually build the strength required to thrive on the glass. He grabbed 3.9 offensive boards per 40 minutes last season and posted Cal’s second-best offensive rebounding percentage.

On defense, Rabb is poised to establish himself as a solid, if unspectacular player. It will be tough for him to switch on pick-and-rolls due to the speed of NBA guards, and he’ll get overwhelmed by the league’s most explosive, powerful bigs. Right now, he’s roughly 220 pounds, so ideally he needs to add 15-25 pounds.

While the athletic limitations may cap his defensive ceiling, Rabb’s instincts and reach are valuable. He posted Cal’s best defensive rating (95.3) and the second-best defensive box plus-minus (4.8) last season because he knew how to use his length.

Rabb made a healthy share of mistakes as a freshman, and he’s still learning when to be aggressive. But he showed a lot of savvy for an inexperienced player. He stayed grounded and waited for opponents to leave the floor before jumping and unfurling his long arms to alter shots. Here’s an example:

Footwork and energy can maximize any defender’s potential, and Rabb’s owns both. One NBA scout told Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman that Rabb has the tools to compete at a high level defensively:

I just think he’s a year smarter, a year more experienced and a year stronger… Because he was so thin (in high school), people thought he’s going to have trouble because he’s going to get pushed around. But he’s a fighter…He can really defend ball screens. He can defend in the post. He’s a prolific rebounder. He has a motor.

Rabb’s two-way repertoire doesn’t suggest tremendous versatility, but there’s a substantial place for him in the NBA. On offense, he’ll likely be the fourth scoring option on the floor—perhaps the third option if he upgrades his shooting. His shot-making, off-ball smarts and rebounding aggression will yield 10-15 points per game, 7-8 rebounds and 50-plus percent shooting (depending on his playing time). Rabb’s defensive success will come against smaller 5’s and slower 4’s; he’ll serve as a hard-working role player on that end rather than an elite physical specimen.

Given his low-post effectiveness and commitment to the dirty work, Rabb will be a highly-coveted commodity come June. The first few picks in the draft will be based on upside, but he’ll entice any mid-lottery clubs seeking a blend of proven talent and tangible potential.

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