Former Cal men’s basketball star makes 1st start, ushers in new chapter

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Lianne Frick/File

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With only a handful of professional games under his belt, Ivan Rabb has only been defined by his role in the case study of why athletes should never return to school. A string of impressive performances, however, has the potential to provide a different perception of the former Cal forward’s young career.

After spending most of the season playing in the NBA G League, Rabb may have finally established himself as a cog in the Memphis Grizzlies’ long-term future, recording his first start in the NBA. In 17 minutes, Rabb dropped in 8 points on 4 of 5 shooting while inhaling six rebounds.

Rabb’s first appearance in Memphis’ starting lineup was a major part of what has been a very impressive stretch of basketball.

Over Rabb’s last four games, he’s averaging 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game in less than 18 minutes per game.

In these four games especially, Rabb flashed some of the tools which may give him some staying power in the league.

One of Rabb’s calling cards in college was his ability to crash the boards. Rabb was one of the best rebounders in the Pac-12 during his sophomore season with the Bears, averaging a conference-leading 10.5 per game. Rabb could collective offensive boards as well, ranking second in that category with 3.0 per game.

In this possession against the Clippers, Rabb gets in excellent position right under the basket after realizing Mario Chalmers is going up with the jumper. Rabb boxes out Sindarius Thornwell, utilizes the pump fake to get both Thornwell and Montrezl Harrell in the air and draws the foul.

While that rebound was more of a gimme, considering Rabb has the size advantage on Thornwell and Chalmers’ shot fell right into Rabb’s hands, this offensive board against the Spurs wasn’t cheap by any means.

As Kobi Simmons goes up for the jumper, Rabb slips right in front of Kyle Anderson to get in position right under the rim. Once Simmons’ shot clanks off the rim, Rabb uses every inch of his 7’2” wingspan to gather the board, then skies up for the two-handed slam in traffic.

At 220 lbs., Rabb still needs to put on a little more weight to consistently bang down low amongst the trees; perhaps a few visits to some of Memphis’ famous BBQ joints are in order this upcoming offseason.

Rabb didn’t have the most versatile offensive skill set during his time at Cal, more often than not relegated to post-ups with limited action in the pick-and-roll — a playstyle which clashes with the direction of the modern NBA.

During his last season with the Bears, however, Rabb developed a bit of a propensity to take jump shots. Rabb only took two 3-pointers as a freshman, but that figure would jump to 20 as a sophomore.

Rabb is growing comfortable with distancing himself from the paint and taking a jumper from 15 feet out.

Here are two examples in the same game of Rabb knocking down a mid-range jump shot, the first one coming out of a jab step and the second one coming on a straight catch-and-shoot.

With the latter of the two jumpers, Rabb shows no hesitation and goes straight up, a marker of how comfortable he is with the shot.

Rabb showed off that same jumper against the Spurs,, hitting a catch-and-shoot jumper with Danny Green attempting to close out.

This clip also displays how tough it will be for defenders to contest Rabb’s jumpers, especially as he further develops this part of his game. Rabb is borderline seven feet tall as it is, and once he goes up for the jumper, the ball is roughly 8.5 feet in the air.

While Rabb’s future is bright, the same cannot be said about the Grizzlies. Unless they want to remain in basketball purgatory while holding onto whatever remains of “Grit ‘n’ Grind” with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Memphis is destined for the tank.

Conley and Gasol both have a couple seasons left on their current contracts, but with an average core which leaves a lot to be desired, Memphis won’t be in serious championship contention anytime soon.

For the Grizzlies, there is a silver lining for the long term if the front office is willing to move on from the glory days.

Even if they aren’t traded this season, Conley and Gasol are both worth a premium package, which can include young talent, first-round draft picks or some combination of the two.

In addition to Conley and Gasol, Memphis also has trade chips in Tyreke Evans, who is having his best season since his Rookie of the Year campaign and JaMychal Green, a serviceable stretch-four and rebounder.

On top of the draft picks the Grizzlies could net, they’re destined to be a lottery team this season with a pair of picks in the second round.

Should the Grizzlies clean house, they won’t be starting from square one. In addition to Rabb, who should receive a plethora of playing time down the stretch, considering this is a rebuilding season, Memphis also has a former Pac-12 nemesis of his in former Oregon star Dillon Brooks, who has had a solid rookie campaign in his own right.

In the short term, Rabb has presented the Grizzlies with a shining of hope in what has easily been this franchise’s darkest season in recent memory. Should he continue to push the envelope, he’ll find himself as a regular starter in due time.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510