Whenever one watches Ivan Rabb play, they usually come away with one clear conclusion: He is an exceptionally skilled and intelligent basketball player.
Although the Memphis Grizzlies selected him with just the 35th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, many were ecstatic for what the once projected lottery pick from the University of California could bring to the table. While he does possess solid size for an NBA big man at 6’10 with a 7’2 wingspan, his skill set is also impressive in that he has exceptional footwork, a consistent knack for scoring around the rim, and a soft, feathery mid-range jumper. All things considered, he should be an excellent rotation big man in the NBA.
That is, if we’re talking about the NBA of the 1990s.
Throughout his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies, the problem with Ivan Rabb was certainly not that he wasn’t a good basketball player. The numbers speak for themselves: In the 36 games he played last season, he averaged 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per 36 minutes. Although he often struggled against stronger players in the post, he was still an effective finisher, converting 68% of his shots at the rim.
His shooting numbers in particular were especially impressive as he shot 56% from the field and a ridiculous 48% on shots from 10-16 feet (to put that in perspective, Dirk Nowitzki, one of the greatest mid-range shooters in NBA history, has shot 47% on those same shots over his illustrious career, and Kevin Garnett shot 46% on them for his career. The percentages of their shots taken from that distance are also both highly similar to Rabb’s).
Ivan Rabb is definitely a fundamentally sound, skilled basketball player with captivating potential in certain areas. However, while he does do several different things well, his problem lies in that he doesn’t do enough things well.
In an NBA where every team now obsessively aspires to an ideal of “positionless basketball”, versatility is now the name of the game. Not only do big men have to be proficient at scoring in the paint and rebounding, but they also have to effectively defend several positions and space the floor offensively.
And it’s when you begin to compare Ivan Rabb to this new-age NBA ideal that his weaknesses really begin to show. He may have the potential to become a truly elite mid-range shooter, but how much are those inefficient shots really worth when he he is incapable (or unwilling, since he didn’t take a single three-pointer last year) of spacing the floor beyond the three-point line? With his knack for scoring in the paint, he could become a solid scoring big off the bench, but how can he stay on the floor when he is completely incapable of protecting the rim or defending the perimeter due to his physical limitations?
For Ivan Rabb to carve out a role as a rotation player for the Memphis Grizzlies or in the NBA as a whole, he will have to improve on two things.
The first is the most important. If he’s going to become more effective at defending physical players in the paint, he will have to get stronger. He may never become adept at containing guards on the perimeter due to his lack of lateral quickness, but he will have to become more effective at post defense at the very least, or else he will not be able to stay on the floor.
The second one is obvious: He will have to improve the range on his jump shot. However, this could be found entirely in his mindset. Since he already has an excellent mid-range jump shot, it shouldn’t be that difficult for him to extend it out to the three-point line, especially as a still very young player. After all, if Marc Gasol can do it at 31, Rabb should be able to do it at nearly a decade younger. He will simply have to decide to start taking threes.
While he may never be a star in the NBA, Ivan Rabb still has some terrific tools and a natural, unteachable feel for the game that could carve him out a role as a rotation player for years to come. And he could very well find that role with the Memphis Grizzlies as early as this coming year. As of right now, he is the fourth best true big man on the team behind Marc Gasol, Jaren Jackson Jr., and JaMychal Green. His minutes may not be consistent every night, but he will likely have a chance to find a consistent role.
But that will be fully dependent on his persistent maturity into a better example of what the NBA now requires of a big.