Five-star big man Ivan Rabb may be Cal's best recruit since Jason Kidd, and he may have an even more sizable impact in the years ahead as coach Cuonzo Martin looks to turn the Golden Bears into a Pac-12 contender.
In September 1991, Jason Kidd, a standout guard at Saint Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda, Calif., announced that he would attend the University of California –Berkeley. His choice was momentous. A two-time state champion and California Mr. Basketball winner who generated so much interest that some of the Pilots’ games were moved to the Oakland Coliseum, Kidd was a transcendent player who possessed the potential to alter the trajectory of a college program. His combination of court vision and distribution was so prodigious that former San Jose State coach Stan Morrison remarked in a 1992 Sports Illustrated article that, “As a passer, [Kidd is] right up there with Magic, with Cousy. The only thing is, he’s a better athlete.”
Kidd was named the United States Basketball Writers Association freshman of the year in 1993, a first-team All-America in '94 and he led the Golden Bears to a 43-17 record and consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. By the time he left Cal—he was the second overall pick 1994 NBA draft—Kidd had cemented his status as one of the best players in program history.
More than two decades later, on April 13 of this year, the Golden Bears scored another major recruiting victory when five-star power forward Ivan Rabb announced his verbal commitment. Like Kidd, Rabb played in the Bay Area, at Bishop O’Dowd. Like Kidd, Rabb is considered one of the best players in his class. Like Kidd, Rabb generated interest from basketball powerhouses across the country yet elected to play for the less heralded, nearby program.
The parallels are not difficult to discern, and Rabb has heard himself compared to Kidd before. “All the time,” he says. Yet those who observed both players in high school hesitate to frame their respective rises to prominence in similar terms. Don Lippi, who coached against Kidd while at Oakland Skyline High School and currently serves as the head coach at St. Joseph Notre Dame, lauded Kidd for his basketball IQ and the level of control he exerted on both ends of the floor. Gerry Freitas, a longtime basketball scout on the West Coast, described Kidd as “the most dominant high school guard I’ve ever seen.”
While those characterizations suggest Kidd attained a level of stardom as a high school player in the Bay Area that won’t soon be matched, it’s clear that Rabb, like Kidd, will begin his career at Cal amid a set of massive expectations.
When Cuonzo Martin took over as Cal's head coach last April, he needed to make up ground with Rabb, quickly. Rabb was already regarded as one of the top players in the country, and several programs had been recruiting him for more than a year. For the Bears to enter the picture, they would have to vault ahead of the likes of Arizona, Kentucky and North Carolina, all of which had already offered Rabb scholarships. The first call Martin made to a recruit went to Rabb, a task made easier, Martin said, by an athletic department official preparing contact information for Rabb’s high school coach and family in advance. An intense pursuit ensued. Martin, who had played at Purdue and in the NBA before becoming head coach at Missouri State and Tennessee, did not have strong recruiting ties on the West Coast prior to taking over in Berkeley. Martin and his assistants set about trying to convince Rabb to reject the opportunity to compete for national championships with established powers in favor of a program with a mediocre recent history. Cal has posted a winning record in every season dating to 2007-08, but has not advanced past the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament since 1997.
Martin and his assistants built strong relationships with Rabb, who estimated that he’s been to Cal’s campus more than 10 times. The Golden Bears’ sales pitch, Rabb said, was grounded in the possibility of him becoming the face of the program, a notion Rabb welcomes but also pushes back against. “That’s something I can appreciate, but also I don’t want to take things from the guys,” Rabb says. “There’s already great guys there, and I just want to be a part of it, and I want to help the team win any way I can.”
As Cal continued to recruit Rabb, he solidified his place near the top of the 2015 recruiting rankings. In the summer 2015 version of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite ranking that incorporates data from several scouting services, Rabb is listed at No. 5. Though that number could dip a few spots in the final version of the 2015 RSCI, Rabb will enter college as one of the most heralded recruits Cal has landed since Kidd. The chart below shows Cal’s top-100 recruits since 1998, the first year of the RSCI.
Rabb has long been ranked among the top high school players in his age group. In May 2012, he checked in at No. 25 in the early version of ESPN’s recruiting rankings, the ESPN 25. His profile soared when, in July of that year, Rabb engaged in a virtual one-on-one battle with fellow class of 2015 five-star center Diamond Stone—who signed with Maryland earlier this month—at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. The game featured Andrew Wiggins, who played at Kansas for one season before being selected No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft, and Julius Randle, who spent one season at Kentucky before going seventh in the same draft, but the head-to-head battle between Rabb and Stone stole the show. As the two big men took turns attacking the basket, Mark Olivier, the executive director of Rabb’s grassroots program, the Oakland Soldiers, remembered looking down at Rabb and telling him, “Ivan, go at him every time down!” In a version of that ESPN ranking released later that year, Rabb slotted at No. 3, behind Stone and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who later reclassified to 2014.
Rabb validated that position by playing well with the Soldiers in the Elite Youth Basketball League and helping USA Basketball win gold medals at the U16 and U17 levels. As a senior at O’Dowd, Rabb averaged 24.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in leading the Dragons to a California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Open Division state title. In the championship game, which was held at Cal’s home stadium, Haas Pavilion, Rabb scored 19 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, blocked two shots and knocked down a free throw with 0.8 seconds remaining to give O’Dowd a one-point edge over Mater Dei. There was speculation over whether Rabb would announce his college decision that night, but Rabb elected to hold off. “I was planning on making it today, but I’m not sure right now,” he said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t want to rush into a decision. I think it’s coming very soon, though. I just need to talk it over with my family.” Rabb decided to reveal his college choice about two weeks later, during a ceremony at the Oakland restaurant where his mother, Tami, works.
“I just want to announce that I’m going to the University of Cal-Berkeley,” Rabb told family, friends and Cal supporters who gathered at the Ol’ Yeller Café N’ Market on April 13.
Rabb later admitted that he was set on picking the Golden Bears right after the McDonald’s All-American game, which was held on April 1. He had been wavering between Cal and Arizona, the first school to offer him a scholarship. Part of the reason the decision was so difficult for Rabb, he said, was the Wildcats’ recent history of success. While the Golden Bears have finished fourth and eighth, respectively, in the Pac-12 the last two seasons, Arizona has taken the regular season championship and advanced to consecutive Elite Eights in both years. Rabb says another selling point was Wildcats coach Sean Miller’s track record of preparing frontcourt players for the NBA. Citing lottery picks Aaron Gordon (2014) and Derrick Williams (2011), Rabb says, “The proof is in the pudding. Those guys are all doing great things, they’re all in the league.” Ultimately, Rabb says, he was enticed by the prospect of leading a resurgence at Cal. “I just saw the vision of where coach Martin wanted to go with this thing, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” Rabb says.
Rabb’s commitment was significant in itself, but it also presaged the possibility of an even larger recruiting coup. Reports had indicated that there was a chance five-star center Caleb Swanigan and five-star small forward Jaylen Brown could join Rabb in Berkeley as a package deal. On April 10, Swanigan tweeted that he would attend Michigan State. There had been rampant speculation that Swanigan was leaning heavily toward Cal, but he later explained that, “I really was seriously considering Cal and, it just, I made up my mind that day which one I wanted to do.”
At his announcement, which took place three days after Swanigan committed, Rabb described himself as “a missing piece of the puzzle” at Cal and said that he planned to step outside and call Brown. Asked for an update on his recruitment of Brown later that week, Rabb said “I feel like we have a good enough relationship to where, if he wasn’t honestly thinking about going there, then he wouldn’t lie to me, so, I mean, but yeah I think we have a great shot to do it.” Last week Brown refuted a report that he had narrowed his options to Michigan and Cal.
Whether or not Brown winds up in Berkeley, the Golden Bears will enter next season with a realistic chance to compete with Arizona, Oregon, Utah and others for the Pac-12 championship. Cal return a strong group of guards including rising juniors Jabari Bird and Jordan Matthews and leading scorer Tyrone Wallace, who announced his decision to remain in college for another season last week after considering a jump to the NBA. Georgetown transfer guard Stephen Domingo and incoming freshman Davon Dillard, a three-star small forward, will bolster the Bears' perimeter corps. Though Cal loses forwards Christian Behrens, David Kravish and Dwight Tarwater, it brings back seven-footers Kinglsey Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, who sat out last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee. Of course, the primary reason Cal fans will look to next season with more optimism than Martin’s first campaign is Rabb, who projects as an immediate starter with the skills to improve Cal’s frontcourt both offensively and defensively.
Josh Gershon, a National Recruiting Analyst for Scout.com who estimates he has seen Rabb play at least 50 times, says Rabb distinguishes himself with his offensive polish. “Not only is Ivan a four that realizes he’s a four, but he’s got a tremendous skill level on the block, he’s ambidextrous, he has a variety of post moves, he’s got very good foot work, he’s tough, he plays very hard, but he can also take defenders outside and consistently hit mid-range shots,” Gershon says. He also said that Rabb—who was measured at 6’10,’’ 209 pounds at the Jordan Brand Classic—is capable of defending multiple positions at the next level, and that he should improve as a rim protector as he gets stronger. Martin said he plans to use Rabb in a role that bears resemblance to the way Kravish was used last season. “A lot of things we do offensively go through that position,” Martin says. “Facing up, making plays, passing the ball high-low, rebounding the ball, posting up, creating a lot of mismatches with the ability to screen and make plays. We might have Ivan coming off ball screens where he’s the ball handler.”
While Rabb should instantly make the Golden Bears more competitive next season, the importance of his decision may resonate beyond 2015-16. When Martin left Tennessee to take over at Cal last year, it was fair to wonder how he would navigate a recruiting territory with which he was not very familiar. One key to making inroads in the Bay Area was forging ties with the Soldiers, one of the top grassroots programs in the country. Cal edged Arizona—whose list of recent Soldiers-alums-turned-Wilcats includes Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Nick Johnson and Stanley Johnson (unrelated)—for Rabb and already has secured a commitment from 2016 four-star small forward (and Soldiers player) Oscar Frayer.
“I think one of the biggest things is identity," Olivier, the Soldiers’ executive director, says of Martin’s presence on the recruiting trail. "People know who he is when he comes into a gym, he’s at games,”
Added Gershon about Rabb, “He’s a great kid, he’s a highly respected kid, his peers in the Bay Area, the up-and-coming kids in that region—they all look up to him. It’s a huge statement for Cal and for Martin and that staff.”
Rabb says he believes he has the potential to be a one-and-done player depending on what happens over the next year (though he currently is not listed on DraftExpress’s 2016 mock draft). That prospect should not dampen the excitement over Cal landing a signature recruit who, even if less heralded than Kidd, can send a positive jolt through a program only a year into a new coaching regime.
• Jaylen Brown has trimmed his list of schools to five, according to a report from Evan Daniels of Scout.com. Brown will choose from among California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and North Carolina, Daniels reported. Brown, a 6'6", 200-pound small forward, is the highest-ranked (No. 3) uncommitted prospect in the 2015 Rivals 150. With power forward Cheick Diallo (No. 5) committing to Kansas on Tuesday, Canadian 7-foot center Thon Maker (No. 9) is the only remaining top-10 prospect who has yet to pledge to a school.
• New Tennessee coach Rick Barnes gained his first two verbal commitments on the same day. First, three-star shooting guard Lamonte’ Turner announced on Tuesday morning that he has picked the Vols. Hours later, power forward Ray Kasongo tweeted that he plans to attend Tennessee. Turner’s commitment comes one day after he said he would reclassify from 2016 to 2015. Turner, who Rivals.com rated the No. 101 junior in the country, listed the following schools as finalists: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Louisville, Tennessee and Wichita State. Meanwhile, Kasongo initially committed to Oregon but reportedly was denied admission at the school. He then played one season for the College of Southern Idaho—averaging six points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 15.6 minutes per game—and chose the Volunteers over Mississippi State.
• Georgia State secured a commitment from a top-100 prospect last week. D’Marcus Simonds, a four-star shooting guard who attends Gainesville (Ga.) High., announced on Twitter that he intends to continue his basketball career with the Bulldogs. Simonds, who also drew scholarship offers from Connecticut, Georgia and Georgia Tech, had been committed to Mississippi State, but he backed off his pledge in March after former coach Rick Ray was fired. Georgia State, which upset No. 3 seed Baylor in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last month, has won consecutive Sun Belt regular season championships.
• On the same day they learned Cheick Diallo wouldn’t be attending Kentucky, the Wildcats earned a commitment from a different player. JUCO shooting guard Mychal Mulder chose Kentucky over Creighton, Indiana and Wichita State, among other programs. During his sophomore season at Vincennes (Ind.) University, the 6'4" Mulder averaged 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 46.3% from three-point range and earned first-team All-America honors. Mulder—who joins five-star point guard Isaiah Briscoe, five-star power forward Skal Labissiere and four-star shooting Charles Matthews in Kentucky’s 2015 recruiting class—will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
• [UPDATE: Scout.com N.C. State site PackPride.com reported Wednesday afternoon that Kirk has sent his letter of intent to N.C. State.] Shaun Kirk committed to N.C. State on Monday, but the three-star small forward could be close to reneging on his pledge after receiving a scholarship offer from Kentucky. Wildcats coach John Calipari watched Kirk play this weekend with his grassroots program, Team Loaded, at the adidas Gauntlet event in Indianapolis. As a senior at Whiteville (N.C.) High, Kirk averaged 18.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.1 steals, according to MaxPreps.
• Oregon picked up its first commitment in the class of 2016 last week. Small forward Keith Smith, a junior at Rainier Beach (Wash.) High School, initially pledged to San Diego State after taking an official visit to the school in February. He reopened his recruitment earlier this month and then pledged to the Ducks. "I first committed to San Diego State right after my official visit, then I sat back and started thinking about it," Smith said, according to The Oregonian. "I was in my season for basketball, so I didn't get a chance to see both teams play. The style of play didn't fit me, so I opened back up." While Smith won’t arrive in Eugene until next season, the Ducks will add two top-60 prospects as part of their 2015 recruiting class: Four-star center Trevor Manuel and five-star shooting guard Tyler Dorsey.
• Josh Jackson is considered one of the top players in the class of 2016, and his performance at the Under Armour Association event in Louisville on Saturday will only strengthen his claim om the No. 1 spot. The 6'7" shooting guard scored 41 points on 19-of-24 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out six assists and recorded three steals in a 77-68 win. Highlights of the game between Jackson’s 1Nation squad and KC Run GMC are embedded below.
[via YouTube user NextUpRecruits]
• Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg landed a commitment from a four-star prospect less than two weeks after undergoing open-heart surgery. "Fred looked great," point guard Nick Noskowiak told The Des Moines Register on Sunday. " He doesn't look like a guy who just had a major surgery like that. He's a warrior." Iowa State announced on Tuesday that Noskowiak signed a financial aid agreement. He initially signed his NLI with Marquette last November but was granted a release in February. Noskowiak—who sat out 15 games during his senior season at Sun Prairie (Wisc.) High while dealing with personal issues—likely will serve as the backup to returning second-team All-Big 12 performer Monte Morris for the Cyclones, who should begin the season ranked in the top 10.