Why Cal's Best Player Since Jason Kidd Told the NBA to Wait

Why Cal's Best Player Since Jason Kidd Told the NBA to Wait

Ivan Rabb (#1) and Jordan Mathews (#24) of the California Golden Bears go up for a rebound during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on March 18, 2016.

SourcePatrick Smith/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because “money over everything” doesn’t always ring true.

Maverick, rebel, risk-taker: These are all fair ways to describe Cal’s polymath power forward Ivan Rabb. Mostly, though, the man who turned down millions of guaranteed NBA dollars to return to school for his sophomore season — the rebuffer of this “one-and-done” era of college basketball devaluation — seems like a shy, friendly kid.

Last season, alongside future third overall NBA draft pick Jaylen Brown, Rabb shined at Cal. The 6′11″, 18-year-old forward averaged 12.5 points and over eight rebounds against Pac-12 opponents, earning second-team all-conference honors and an early first-round draft projection from NBA scouts. The Golden Bears’ season, however, ended unceremoniously. The final week saw an assistant coach dismissed for allegations of harassment and two key veteran players (Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird) injured as the team dropped a first-round March Madness contest to 13th-seeded Hawaii — a school with zero postseason victories.

Last season “wasn’t supposed to end like that,” says Rabb. Then again, this season wasn’t supposed to start with the hometown hero still on campus, either. NBA training camp was a much likelier destination.

Rabb hails from the home of the Golden State Warriors, Oakland. Raised by his mother, Tami, a chef and owner of a Cajun catering company, Rabb and his brother grew up without much parental supervision thanks to mom’s exigent schedule; he passed unregimented afternoons in a city known for crime. Which sent Rabb’s mother looking for private schools for her boys. He landed at Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic school with a strong record of athletic success. The school’s coach, Lou Richie, sent a message to Tami through a friend: If the boys wanted to attend O’Dowd, the school would “find a way to help them out.”

Four years, one state championship and 2,000 points later, Ivan was the winningest player in O’Dowd history. He was fielding offers from every top college in the country. Most hoops guesstimators figured Rabb would follow former AAU teammates Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson to Arizona, but Rabb wanted to carve his own path.

With Brown and Rabb, Cal coach Cuonzo Martin had the type of elite freshman class enjoyed by the likes of Duke and Kentucky. Berkeley hadn’t scored a similarly major recruit since fellow hometown hero — and future Hall of Famer — Jason Kidd signed with the Bears in 1991. No one has benefited more from Rabb’s presence — and Year 2 return — in Berkeley than Martin. Sensing another successful season on the horizon, the university extended Martin’s $1.84 million–per-season contract through 2021.

And yet, if he wants his name called with the first pick of the 2017 NBA draft, Rabb’s game must progress. “The biggest thing for Ivan’s continued growth is him demanding the ball,” Coach Martin tells OZY. “Having a presence that demands the ball without needing plays drawn for him. Every time down the floor, he needs to be a threat.” Rabb knows this: “This year, I’m looking to score every time I touch the ball.” Rabb spent every day this off-season training with now-senior Bird. He’s also focusing on bulking up, he tells OZY — he’s at 230 pounds, up 25 from last season. ESPN basketball commentator and scout Fran Fraschilla tells OZY that Rabb’s strength is key to his development, as is the need to become more assertive on offense. “He would have been a lottery pick last season, but he likely would have spent his first NBA season being bullied by grown men,” says Fraschilla.

The steep barrier to NBA playing time is part of why Rabb chose to continue playing college ball instead of jumping to the League. Rabb followed the professional careers of several friends — namely Ashley and former Arizona star Nick Johnson — who quickly fizzled out of the NBA and decided that the fast track to riches might not be best. By choosing school, he’s getting another season of near limitless playing time.

If all goes well, Rabb will be drafted early in next summer’s first round — most experts predict he’ll go in the 5–12 range, to a team desperate for an athletic stretch-4, like Washington or Denver — and will lock up a long-term megadeal once his second contract comes around. But all is not assured. Injuries occur, and, in college, a career can end before it ever truly begins. In 2015, VCU’s star point guard Briante Weber tore his ACL and MCL on a steal attempt. He finished his career 12 steals shy of the NCAA record, went undrafted and is now riding the bus to NBA Development League games in Iowa.

This concept seemed all too real at Cal’s Haas Pavilion during an open practice three weeks ago. Rabb was seated in the far corner of the gym, in street clothes, with his left leg encased in a walking boot. “He’s just out as a precaution,” Coach Martin claimed. “No sprain, no roll; he should be back practicing tomorrow.” Three weeks later, Rabb sat the first two games of the season with a sprained toe suffered during a scrimmage the day before my visit. An early season toe injury is hardly career-threatening, but missing a chunk of games at an inopportune time can drastically alter one’s trajectory.

Rabb made his return in Cal’s third game (losing, eventually, to San Diego State). There he was, snatching one-handed rebounds off the glass and spinning around helpless defenders for ambidextrous hook shots in the post. Rabb finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes of play, the perfect start to what should be an All-American season. For now, he’s focused on a Pac-12 title and March Madness redemption. Soon, we’ll find out if Rabb’s ready for those NBA bullies.

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