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Who is Ivan Rabb Going to Be in the NBA?

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Elite rebounding is a start, but it’ll take more than that.

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament-California vs Oregon State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Around this time last year, SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell ranked Ivan Rabb as the sixth best prospect in the draft. It’s impossible to color Rabb, the 35th overall pick last week, with those same expectations anymore, but we’re only one bummer of a season removed from Rabb, the lottery talent. At one point, the magic was there—it just didn’t take.

So what happens to a five-star recruit deferred?

Big men with issues on defense and a suspect jumper are the type you rarely see succeed anymore; Ivan Rabb is the type you rarely see succeed anymore. When you don’t defend the rim or space the floor, well, there are only so many other things a big can do that matter as much.

I’m not filled with bubbles and inspiration—my guy was Jonah Bolden, who was drafted right after Rabb—and you know what the Grizzlies’ draft history is like. It’s unfair to us to ignore that, to soldier on pretending like this one is suddenly going to be okay. Nah. This team has to prove that they can actually find an NBA player in the draft.

That said, it’s also unfair to Rabb to dismiss him just like that, because like any other rookie, who knows? We should meet his potential on its own terms, too—what he does, and what he’ll have to do.

To this end, I watched a few hundred clips off Synergy. Everything for the takes.

Rabb needs to find an NBA identity

It’s hard to say what Rabb is actually going to do as an NBA player. His game, as a concept, is incomplete—if you took the things that he’s already good at and extrapolated them to the level of your average NBA starter, he still wouldn’t be that good. There are other parts of his game that need to fill out, otherwise he might as well be one of those faceless bigs we left back in 2007.

Basically, this comes back to defense and shooting. If neither of the two are your thing, you better be really good at something else to have a thing at all. The things that Rabb does well are:

  • Rebounding — 10.5 rebounds per game in 32.7 minutes, second among drafted college players. A good thing to be elite at.
  • Mobility / energy — 6’10, 215 lb, 7’2 wingspan, moves well for a big man
  • Inside scoring — athletic, soft touch, good finisher

Rebounding helps. It doesn’t force stops, but controlling second chances is a part of defense, too. As the league goes smaller, elite individual rebounding continues to matter more. So it’s not on its own an identity, but if Rabb can be great at it, then it’s possible to form an identity around rebounding.

Only a few players in the NBA are similar. Andre Drummond is one, and current-day Dwight Howard is pretty close to it, but they aren’t much like Rabb. The best version of the player that he looks like is probably Tristan Thompson, a small-ball 5 who holds down the glass and blends in a pace-and-space game.

Things might not have looked that way in college. The California Golden Bears started two traditional bigs, with Rabb as their power forward, and eschewed pick-and-rolls in favor of post-ups. It was a retrograde offense. He has a soft touch to go with mobility and athleticism, which can make a useful player, but not in the way that he was featured as a scorer in college. Let’s be clear about this: Rabb has no game on offense.

According to Synergy, 38.4 percent of Rabb’s shooting possessions finished in a post-up, and he shot 37.6 percent from the field. That’s average by post-up standards, bad from a team offense standpoint, and nearly a disaster if you project it to the NBA. It was his touch and footwork (good) working against his team’s lack of spacing and his own lack of strength (horrendous). Only elite post scorers and passers get the ball in the NBA, though, and things probably don’t boil down that way for Rabb.

That’s okay. The modern athletic big man doesn’t need a complete scoring game—that’s Anthony Davis that you’re thinking of. Players who average eight points and six rebounds off the bench get by if they can protect the glass on small-ball lineups, against small-ball lineups, and stay out of the way on offense.

If Rabb keeps it simple, he’ll fit into any offense. Rim rolls, put-backs, and short corner duck-ins are easy, and important, buckets. After post-ups, his two most frequent play types were possessions ending in cuts and offensive rebounds (16.3 and 13.6 percent). On both, he shot above 60 percent from the field and ranked near the 75th percentile in efficiency. Those are high-percentage finishing looks, and Rabb finished them better than most.

This comes back to his mobility and energy. He moves well, and he works hard. You can make a player out of that.

He must learn to defend one position...at least

Before anything about skill or game matters, Rabb needs an NBA body first. He needs to get stronger, so that he doesn’t immediately die upon contact in the post. That first post-up in practice against Zach Randolph is going to be like a bull smashing through a glass door.

Bulking is kind of a given, though. It’s part of the natural process of being in the NBA, when Rabb begins to work with NBA trainers and prepare for NBA players. It’s hard to go through that without adding muscle. (We call that Brandan Wright.)

Strength is going to give a friendly tug to Rabb’s percentages as an inside scorer, and that’s going to matter when/if he starts getting rocked inside. Even in college, he was getting bodied by little guys and crumpling on contested rebounds.

Strength is also going to define Rabb’s ability to play center in the NBA, which he’s going to have to, because he doesn’t move his feet fast enough to defend the power forwards that he’s going to be up against on the perimeter. Right now, Rabb can’t defend a position, but the only one he has a shot at is center. So, yeah, he needs strength.

It still might not be enough! If we go back to thinking of Tristan Thompson, he’s a passable rim protector, but the other area he’s elite at, other than rebounding, is switching on screens. Defending the pick-and-roll is where he makes his money, as much as anything.

That’s not going to be Rabb, but to a degree, it’s going to have to be. If he’s playing as a mobile, small-ball center, then he’s going to run into some firebrand offenses that force him to defend in space. The key is going to be defensive switching, because he’ll never be good enough as a rim protector to make up for it. It takes a player like Rudy Gobert to win out that way.

So Rabb has to add weight, and he has to move faster in space at the same time. It’s tough, it’s a dilemma, and it’s a longshot. That’s kind of the point. Defensive versatility is almost a baseline requirement for bigs, at least to the point of adequacy. Whether or not he can get by is the central question in Rabb, the NBA player. He might not be able to close that gap, both literally and figuratively.

Wingspan helps, and Rabb measures 7’2 across. On his ass-backwards college team, he had to match up against stretch 4s, big wings, et cetera. Mostly, he lost in those situations, but not always. He ran hard on closeouts and used his reach to challenge shots. Sometimes, he got just enough sideways movement to eat up a drive with those arms, and that’s when you begin to think he might be okay.

Rabb doesn’t look like a player who’s going to be able to do that in the NBA, but it’s not a question of athleticism, at least. Focus on the footwork, the lateral mobility, and the defensive stance—all of it is a work in progress—and maybe his defense catches up to his running. Probably not, because right now, he’s still kind of a stiff.

But maybe.

Don’t the Grizzlies already have this player?

This is what upsets me. Let’s take the player that Rabb is, in a mostly vague sense, and examine how he fits on the Grizzlies. He’s an athletic, undersized center who rebounds well, moves well, and finishes well. Almost immediately, you run into the problem that the Grizzlies already drafted this player last season.

You already know who I’m talking about, but entertain me with this Player A/Player B comparison. Stats from college, per 40 minutes:

  • Player A: 6’10, 215 lbs, 7’2 wingspan, 17.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 49.7 eFG%
  • Player B: 6’10, 240 lbs, 7’2 wingspan, 16.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 59.8 eFG%

Player A is Ivan Rabb, and Player B is Ivan Rabb plus 25 pounds and existent defense. Player B is Deyonta Davis, damnit.

The difference between the two, according to my Twitter mentions, is that Rabb is supposed to have scoring potential. That’s probably true, but he should have made something of it by now, and he didn’t and it doesn’t look like he will, and so he fell out of the lottery.

The idea is that he can shoot, and sure, his college team set him up for a few jumpers. Rabb shot 8-for-20 on threes last season, which is 40.0 percent and a damn lie. His midrange jumper is bust, funny with a hitch, and tanked his field goal percentage as well as his college team’s offense. He shot 66.7 percent on free throws, which is better than Deyonta, but probably not the makings of a future shooter.

What separates Rabb from Deyonta is that he might be a shooter, that something more is possible, that the chance exists. Probably, that manifests as a marginal improvement in paint scoring percentages and a midrange jumper you don’t want taken. It’s a red herring.

I didn’t like the idea of Ivan Rabb when the Grizzlies drafted him, but I was thinking that a good version of the player exists and that I could find him in the game tape. That’s still true! It just doesn’t look likely to play out that way for Rabb. If there’s an optimistic note to end off on here, though, it's who knows?

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