Ivan Rabb participated in May’s NBA draft combine only vicariously: The California forward watched the drills and scrimmages on television and called and texted his friends at the event. He learned there were no shortcuts to a professional career, unless maybe you headed for the loading dock. Because autograph seekers prowled the lobby of the downtown Chicago inn where the participants were staying, and as best as Rabb could tell from his buddies, it sometimes took 15 minutes to make it from the player shuttle to an elevator.
“I’m sure they were tired after their workouts, but at the end of the day, this is what you sign up for when you go to the next level,” Rabb says. “That’s what everybody asks for growing up. They want fans and the spotlight and things like that. It’s just part of being a professional athlete.”
The 6'11" Rabb could have been there, too, after a highly productive first season in Berkeley (12.5 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, 12 double-doubles, team-high 124.8 offensive rating and 5.1 Win Shares) that suggested he was nowhere near his ceiling. Some might posit Rabb should have been there, carrying lottery-pick cache with him. But a player who had heard he might one of the first dozen names off the board on draft night did the strangest thing: He didn’t declare. He didn’t test the waters. He didn’t so much as approach the shoreline.
Ivan Rabb just didn’t want to enter the NBA draft. There’s evidently no great mystery beyond that, at least none that Cal’s standout big man will cop to over the phone, shortly after returning to campus for the summer. This seemingly was a simple exercise in free will. It’s only unusual because Rabb heard basically everything a player might want to hear but didn’t go pro. And being surprised by that probably says more about us than it says about Ivan Rabb.
“At the end of the day, the NBA isn’t going anywhere,” Rabb says. “If I’m the guy I’m supposed to be, I should be there next year as well. I should be even better, even more comfortable on the floor, have a better mentality. There are some improvements on the floor I want to make, and why not make them in college before I get to the next level? I want to have fewer weaknesses, so when I get there, I can just continue to get better.”
In total, 117 collegiate underclassmen originally declared for the NBA draft, exercising their new right to explore their prospects without losing their college eligibility. By the May 25 deadline, 57 of those underclassmen withdrew their names. What did Rabb realize that prevented him from even putting his name in the pool in the first place?
Cal’s season ended with a thud of a first round loss to No. 13 seed Hawaii. Rabb spent a week away from basketball after that, and then he reconnected with coach Cuonzo Martin to discuss the future.
While the underclassmen who eventually declared for the draft did so with the intent to figure out where they stood with NBA teams—or, maybe more accurately, to find an excuse to go pro—Rabb says he had the information the test-the-waters crowd would later seek. “I didn’t really test the waters because I had a bunch of information from the league—that’s what a lot of people don’t know,” Rabb says. “I got a lot of information from the teams before the workouts or anything like that.” The Cal coaching staff previously did due diligence and the consensus was that Rabb would be selected in the lottery, possibly as high as No. 6.
After that, it was another week or two of conferring with family and confidants who told him to do what was right for him. And Rabb felt he wasn’t ready. He shot 61.5% last winter but wanted to extend the range on his jump shot. He wanted to be a better ball-handler. He wanted to improve as a perimeter defender, cognizant that switching on to wings and holding his own will be crucial to his success at the next level. If he managed all that, he figured, he wouldn’t lose much ground.
“People that go to college for [only] one year, very few of them actually do well in the NBA,” Rabb says. “There are definitely guys that go above and beyond expectations and dominate the league in the future or stick around. But there are also plenty of guys who are in and out. Personally, I don’t want to be a guy who is in and out. I don’t believe if I would have left after my first year that that would happen. But at the same time, I want to be more comfortable on the floor. There are plenty of things I can do to help myself before I leave.”
The risks are unmistakable. A catastrophic injury, for one. A 2017 draft class that promises to be overloaded with talent could nudge Rabb down the board even if he improves as he hopes. And Cal will be without both guard Jaylen Brown (a 14.6-point scorer as a freshman who should come off the board as a lottery pick in June) and now Jordan Matthews (13.5 ppg), who announced his plans to depart as a graduate transfer. Cal may fill the holes with Columbia transfer Grant Mullins and Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, both of whom will be eligible to play in 2016–17, but for the moment Rabb figures to be Cal’s key player.
“I don’t really mind it,” he says. “I feel like I got a lot of attention last year with the double-teams on the blocks. I’m sure this year will be a lot of the same. But I’ll be better, too.”
This summer, Martin would like Rabb to get up 500 shots a day in an effort to improve his range; Rabb guesses 200 is more realistic. “I want to shoot them and make them,” he says. He doesn’t know yet how he’ll gear other workouts to improve his game, but he’s around to do them already—the first step on the path to take ownership of the Bears this winter.
“That’s why I’m here in May, working out with the guys, so they can see me and they know I’m here to get better,” Rabb says. “Just being seen and being vocal, those are things that go a long way.”
In April, Rabb made a decision not too many college basketball players would make. It wasn’t a principled stand against one-and-done culture that should be spun as an affirmative statement for college basketball. A player who says he didn’t feel ready to enter the NBA draft didn’t. Ivan Rabb just did what he wanted to do. If you want to make it more complex than that, it’s your choice