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At this time last year, Ivan Rabb was projected as a future lottery pick.
Now, the Cal forward will be hailed as a cautionary tale.
The Memphis Grizzlies selected Rabb with the 35th pick of the 2017 NBA draft on Thursday night, a disappointing outcome for a player who entered his sophomore season at Cal with higher expectations. Rabb told Yahoo Sports last November that NBA scouts predicted he would have been taken between eighth and 14th had he opted to enter the draft last year, after his freshman season.
The millions of dollars Rabb lost by staying in school an extra year are a reminder of the importance of proper timing for draft prospects. For every Kris Dunn or Buddy Hield who surged up draft boards after returning to school, there are other guys like Rabb or former Baylor forward Perry Jones whose stock plummets after an unexpected plateau.
While Rabb knew he was taking a risk delaying his NBA payday to return to Cal last spring, he felt he had good reason to stay in Berkeley for one more year.
He didn’t feel physically or emotionally ready to be a difference maker in the NBA after a freshman season in which he was typically his team’s third or fourth offensive option. He felt he could avoid languishing on the bench or being sent to the D-League as an NBA rookie if he came back to school, diversified his offensive game and experienced what it was like to be his team’s offensive focal point.
“I felt in my heart the whole time that I wanted to stay, but people were telling me it didn’t make sense or what if I get hurt,” Rabb told Yahoo Sports last year. “That bothered me and made me go back and forth, but I’ve always felt that if I didn’t believe I was ready to go, then that’s all that mattered. I think it’s when I finally stuck to my gut feeling and tuned everyone else out that I was able to make a decision.”
Rabb worked tirelessly last summer to add muscle to his long, lean 6-foot-11 frame and develop a more consistent outside shot, but he did not evolve into the All-American candidate NBA scouts hoped he would become. While he averaged a solid 14 points per game and excelled on the glass at both ends of the floor, his efficiency decreased as his usage rate increased, and he was unable to lead Cal back to the NCAA tournament.
One huge issue for Rabb was that Cuonzo Martin’s offense lacked the spacing, perimeter shooting or ball movement necessary to maximize his strengths. He seldom had much room to operate in the post and he rarely had a quickness advantage, since Martin insisted on playing a pair of plodding 7-footers alongside him rather than using him as a center.
But Cal’s uninspiring offense wasn’t the sole culprit for Rabb’s modest improvement. He needs to strengthen his lower body, get more assertive finishing through contact, develop a more reliable perimeter jumper and become more comfortable defending opposing guards in space.
Ultimately, there’s a chance Memphis got good value taking a prospect who was certainly scrutinized differently as a sophomore than he was as a freshman.
Rabb may not have been worth a lottery pick. But if he can move past Thursday’s disappointing slide and work to address his flaws, he may yet emerge as a second-round steal.
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More NBA draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• NBA draft winners and losers: Kings finally score big
• NBA prospect loses millions by staying in school
• Team-by-team grades for 2017 NBA draft
• Process pays off: Sixers take Fultz No. 1 overall