Don’t let him be misunderstood

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Last week, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s an avid Cal sports fan after the Bears’ narrow 68-65 home loss to Oregon. He, like many others, was quick to place the blame on forward Ivan Rabb and believes that Rabb has been disappointing this season.

I’m not surprised that some people feel this way. In key games against Arizona and Oregon, Rabb scored four points and 10 points, respectively, which could be interpreted as him being unable to excel in critical moments.

The caveat is that Rabb is consistently double-teamed every game and struggles to score when being overwhelmed by multiple defenders. Strong defensive effort, aside from highlight-reel-worthy blocks, is also typically underappreciated by the average spectator. Plus, the Bears have dropped several close games that were decided in the last two minutes, which tends to be dubbed the fault of the team’s go-to guy: Rabb.

As with any team leader, Rabb has to shoulder some of the blame for the Bears’ losses. But I think his brilliance is being overlooked.

With two games left before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, Rabb is currently the team’s rebounding leader with 10.7 per game (10th in the NCAA) and is second in scoring on the team with 14.6 points per game, all while shooting more than 51 percent from the field. Last season, Jaylen Brown, who was drafted third by the Boston Celtics in the 2016 NBA draft, posted the exact same scoring average for Cal — on far worse efficiency.

On offense, Rabb averages just 10.2 shot attempts per game. That’s the third-highest mark on the team, after Jabari Bird and Charlie Moore. Rabb’s surprisingly low number of field goal attempts is the result of heavy defensive attention and the fact that he doesn’t receive the ball in positions conducive to scoring because of his old-school playing style.

It’s important to remember that Rabb’s offensive skill set is that of a traditional, back-to-the-basket big man. He typically scores on post-ups, putbacks or in transition and although he’s hit the occasional triple this season, his perimeter shooting is still a work in progress. This limits the room that Rabb has to operate within, which forces him to rely on his teammates to space the floor and draw defenders out to the three-point line. If he catches the ball in the post and the defense doesn’t respect the threat of his teammates shooting from outside, they’ll pay extra attention to him. So, Rabb’s effectiveness on offense can often be limited by his team’s inability to stretch the opposing defense.

Rabb also deserves credit for being the anchor of one of the top defenses in the nation. The Bears are ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and 12th in the NCAA. With his combination of agility and length, Rabb is able to chase down mobile forwards while also providing strong rim protection. NBA superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook are lauded for their otherworldly offensive talents while half-assing their way on defense, so shouldn’t Rabb’s defensive contributions merit additional praise?

I don’t think that Rabb’s deficiencies should be ignored. He’s a terrible free-throw shooter, he lacks the strength to back down heavier big men and he hasn’t been as assertive as he needs to be. But I think Rabb’s value isn’t always reflected in the box score and that the criticism of him being unable to score at will is misplaced.

Kapil Kashyap covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]