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NBA AM: Ivan Rabb’s Big Mistake

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It’s a good idea, in theory. A potential first-round draft prospect is told that he could earn himself a guaranteed contract immediately or go back to school for a little more seasoning and then really cash out on his talent in the next draft.

The problem is that it doesn’t usually work that way.

Rarely do players go back to school for another year after being projected as a first-round draft pick and actually improve their stock. Kris Dunn probably saw a small boost in his lottery stock a year ago. Doug McDermott also did better for himself by going back to school for another season when he was a junior considering declaring, but outside of those two guys, it’s hard to think of any recent examples of players actually using that extra year of school to boost their stock.

California’s Ivan Rabb, for example, could serve as something of a cautionary tale along these lines, as he was projected as a probable lottery pick a year ago before ultimately opting to back out of the draft and return to Cal.

He’s still a first-rounder, but his stock has unquestionably dropped. Despite that, he doesn’t really seem to care all that much.

“No, definitely not,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I thought I needed to go back to mature because the plan is for me to stick in the league for a long time once I get there, so I feel like I made the best decision for me. I’m better. That’s all I can really say.”

More specifically, Rabb believes that another year in school helped with his maturity beyond basketball. He spent the last year preparing mentally for a possible stint in the NBA, which he believes has better prepared him to be an actual professional basketball player.

“Staying in school, I changed my mentality a lot. I’m way more mature, including off the court. I’ve been able to say no to people, and on the court I’m working even harder. I worked hard before, but now it’s like this whole other level.”

There’s no question that he actually was a better player in his sophomore season, seeing season averages bump up from 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds as a freshmen to 14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this past year. His offensive efficiency dropped considerably, which probably explains some of his lost stock, but his rebounding really did improve.

“One thing I know that could translate to the NBA right now is rebounding the ball,” he said. “I can hit the offensive glass really well. I can run the floor and space the floor because I’m shooting the ball so fluidly. Every part of game is becoming more polished every day, which is why I really think it was time for me to do this.”

He also believes that a huge contributor to his drop in field goal percentage from 61.5 percent to 48.4 percent was the fact that he saw more defensive attention this year with Jaylen Brown off to the NBA’s Boston Celtics.

“People don’t know how much better I got this past year. I was doubled every game, so I didn’t get to really show what I can do. Now that I’m not going to be doubled in the NBA my rookie year, I’m excited to actually be able to showcase a little more of what I can do.”

Furthermore, he swears he can be a modern “stretch-four” and shoot the ball consistently from deep, even though he only attempted 20 three-pointers all season. To his credit, he hit 40 percent of those, but the sample size is incredibly small. Whatever the numbers, Rabb swears he can do more from further out.

“You can never be a good enough shooter. A lot of people don’t really know how well I can shoot [the three-pointer] because I didn’t shoot that many of them at Cal, but I’ve really been working at it. My shot is so much more fluid, and I’m feeling good about it. It’s getting better every day.”

Meanwhile, his former teammate Brown, the third pick in last June’s NBA Draft, has kept in touch and helped to prepare Rabb for his own stint in the NBA. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the ways in which Rabb thinks he’s a better, smarter player now than he was a year ago.

“He told me about all the small stuff—how to deal with media, the rookie treatment, how to deal with not playing as much. He told me you have go in, work out, do extra work. Even before he got there he knew what to expect because he was so mature. I’m trying to do the same thing.”

One thing Rabb made clear at the NBA Draft Combine earlier this month is that he’s trying to show teams how composed and charismatic he is. He wants them to like him as a person as well as a player, and he hopes that the seasoning he underwent in another season at Cal will pay off in that way at the very least.

Frankly, the lottery isn’t out of the question depending on how the next few weeks go for him in terms of workouts and team interviews. Currently, he projects in the 15-25 range, which is a drop from last season, but not so much of one that anybody could really call his decision to go back to school a massive mistake. Sure, he lost a little money, but based on the way he speaks, it sounds like he is emotionally more receptive to the forthcoming seven-figure salary and more adept at turning away the friends and family eyeballing financial handouts.

Talent-wise, he’s not all that different. He may be punished for that since he came out in a year loaded with great prospects, but whatever lottery organizations saw in him a year ago is still there….

That, and a lot of other really good things he gained along the way.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.