Ivan Rabb came into Cal as the Robin of head coach Cuonzo Martin’s dynamic recruiting duo. Swing-man Jaylen Brown, the Batman of Cal’s 2015 signing class, did what was expected: He swooped in, impressed with his versatility, swooped out and into the NBA draft.
However, a funny thing happened over the course of the Golden Bears’ season: Rabb grew into the better college basketball player.
Perhaps just as unexpected is that after averaging 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in his freshman campaign, Rabb opted to return to Berkeley for his sophomore season. A sidekick no longer, Rabb stands in the middle as the key for Cal’s dark-horse pursuit of a Pac-12 championship, and a contender for the 2016-’17 season’s National Player of the Year award.
He’s everything the modern NBA would want from a forward. Rabb has length at 6-foot-11 along with quickness, and can face up to the basket, but he also sprinkles in some old-school big-man qualities. He can make plays with his back to the basket, and he defends the interior well, a trait that only improved the longer he was in Martin’s defense-first system.
Nevertheless, Rabb explained to ESPN shortly after announcing his intent to return to Cal he wanted “to be ready” once he got to the NBA — arrive and be able to make an impact, not watch from the bench after being selected on potential.
Rabb’s got the tools to be a quintessential stretch-four. Reaching his potential means developing a more consistent jump shot he can unload in games.
Martin won’t want him sacrificing the shot selection that produced a 61.5 percent field-goal average a year ago, so don’t expect Rabb to give up the drop-step or explosive finishes around the rim that defined his freshman season. Still, he should see more opportunities to take mid-range or deeper jump shots — a luxury afforded him by the talent around him.
Cal has size that, among Pac-12 counterparts, only Arizona can match. The Golden Bears return 7-foot-1 Kinglsey Okoroh, and 7-foot Kameron Rooks, who should be back soon from a foot injury. Okoroh and Rooks function as more classic fives, giving Rabb the option to operate in space.
Add a capable perimeter threat in Jabari Bird to keep defenses honest, and Rabb’s poised for an offensive outburst in his sophomore season.
Another addition to his NBA resume that should also make Ivan Rabb a Player of the Year candidate: He returned for Year 2 to add more bulk to his frame.
Despite packing on 10 pounds of muscle in short order last year, Rabb was rail thin as a freshman. That didn’t necessarily hurt him — his tenacity on the boards produced nearly nine rebounds per game, and he was a capable rim protector on defense.
However, now playing at around 220 pounds, expect to see a more physical Rabb in the paint. That’s a scary thought for opponents, considering he was a force in the lane already as a thin freshman.
College basketball never had the opportunity to see Kevin Garnett perform, but Ivan Rabb could be the closest thing if he reaches his ceiling in 2016-’17. At the very worst, he’ll be the unquestioned Batman leading Cal in pursuit of a conference title.