How Does Ivan Rabb Bolster Cal's Post Game?
BERKELEY -- Last season, the California men’s basketball team was small, as far as being big was concerned. Senior center David Kravish was more of a power forward, more comfortable in the mid-range game, and lacking the bulk of a true Pac-12 post.
Christian Behrens was athletic, but again, not big enough to bang inside. Seven-footer Kameron Rooks was on the shelf with a knee injury, forcing true freshman seven-footer Kingsley Okoroh to play far more minutes than he would in a more ideal situation.
Now, Rooks is healthy, Okoroh is more comfortable with his size and much more flexible (and more highly conditioned), and the Bears have added a key piece to the inside game: Ivan Rabb.
Adding all those pieces, plus five-star wing Jaylen Brown and a shooter like Stephen Domingo -- now eligible after sitting out a season following his transfer from Georgetown -- has allowed the staff to “put in more than we could last year, because with our personnel, we felt like it was enough for our guys to put them in position to be successful, but you have guys that can do more things in certain positions,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin, who takes his Bears down to Australia for 10 days in just over a week.
The blueprint of what the Bears do, Martin said, will not change, but Rabb certainly has.
Rabb said that he’s already put on 12 pounds of muscle, and he’s at 219 pounds – still a shade under his ideal playing weight of 225, he said – and that extra bulk has certainly helped. Having watched Rabb for four years, one of the biggest concerns wasn’t his skill level -- or his size, for that matter – but his motor. Against top-level competition, he kept his motor running, but against lower competition, he tended to look a bit bored at times. That’s not the case now.
Watching Rabb guard shooters like Domingo on the perimeter, and grinding with Rooks and Okoroh on Thursday, Rabb just plain worked.
“In individual workouts, you get pushed to the limit, but in a practice setting, sometimes, I would coast,” Rabb said. “My coach tried to get that out of me, but sometimes, I was just so much better than everybody, so it was just a habit. Now, I’m breaking that habit, and I’m pushing myself to the limit. Out there, today (Thursday), I was guarding Ty [Tyrone Wallce], which is a challenge, but I definitely took that head-on, and that’s something I want to do, because I want the team to get better, every day.”
Seeing that kind of talent continuously grinding shows that he’s ready to take the next step, if he hasn’t already started to.
“He has to learn how to guard on the perimeter, and he also has to guard Kingsley and Kameron in the post, so it’s a big adjustment for him,” Martin said. “He might have to guard Brandon Chauca, who’s 5-9, I guess 5-10 maybe. So, he’s got to guard a variety of guys. That’s not easy. That’s a big adjustment for him.”
Rabb finished with both hands effectively in practice, as we’ve seen him do countless times in games and in the AAU setting over the past four years, and it adds a lot of versatility to what Cal can do down low.
“He has the ability to shoot, as well, with his left hand going left, and his right going right, cross over and make plays,” Martin said. “He shoots jump shots with it. If that’s not something you’re used to, it can be difficult for guys to adjust to, because he’s as effective with both hands around the rim, and he’s a quick athlete.”
The extra practices for Rabb, as well as Brown and fellow freshman Roman Davis have been immensely valuable, as the Bears prepare to embark on what could be an historic season for the program.
“It’s helped me out a lot,” Rabb said. “I get a chance to come out here and find out what I need to work on, so as soon as I got out here, I realized that I do need to get stronger. People were telling me that in high school, and I didn’t realize it. I got really serious when I got out here. Now that I’m stronger, everybody’s realizing it, and I’m making a bigger impact on the game. Every guy is proud of me. They’re picking me up when I’m not doing so well.”
That sense of camaraderie extends beyond the hardwood.
“The locker room atmosphere is great,” Rabb said. “We don’t have too much arguing. Everybody gets along. That’s something that I also appreciate, and I feel like family, already.”
As beneficial as the extra time has been, preparing for the Australia trip, at first, Rabb was incredulous about the idea.
“I didn’t know how to react; I thought it was a joke, at first,” Rabb said. “I kept hearing the rumors that we were going to Australia, and I’m like, ‘For what?’ So, I guess we’re going out there and playing four games. I’m definitely really excited, not only about the basketball, but about the trip. I’m planning on enjoying everything – playing hard in the games and also enjoying everything around Australia.”
Cal will leave for Australia on Aug. 13, before playing Victoria Select on Aug. 15, then the Frankston Blues on Aug. 18, the Illawana Hawks on Aug. 20, before returning to the Bay Area on Aug. 24.
“On the court, we definitely need to get our chemistry going,” Rabb said. “I know we’re trying to work on our rotations. I’m going to try to get a feel for playing with all the guys on the team, and off the court, we get to spend a lot of quality time together, to get to know each other even more, and, I guess, to adventure.”
As for Okoroh, simply put, he’s a different player.
“Kingsley, he’s motivated and he’s focused, as well,” Rabb said. “He’s running the floor a lot better, he’s finishing around the basket. He’s doing great. Everybody’s being vocal on defense, and when everybody has that energy, everybody picks up.”
He moved like the rusted-out Tin Man last year, and his conditioning wasn’t to the point where he could give full effort on both sides of the court. Now, he’s much more flexible, much more athletic, and owns his size.
“Oh, man, Kingsley’s doing a great job,” Martin said. “I don’t ever think Kingsley will be your leading scorer. I think what Kingsley brings to the table is that he protects the lane. He and Kam can protect the lane. Kingsley has size. He blocks shots.
“I didn’t think he did a very good job last season of blocking shots and then making plays on the basketball. I think he has more confidence in his game, and in his body, to make plays on the basketball. I think he was more consumed last year with just trying to keep his man at bay and keeping him off the glass, and he couldn’t be a big man as far as helping and recovering. I think he’s doing a good job with that, right now.”
Increased confidence – and comfort -- in his body has been key for Okoroh.
“He’s improved his athleticism,” Martin said. “I think, for him, it’s the confidence. It’s amazing the jump guys make between the spring and the summer time, and then going into the fall. I think he’s made those jumps … Going against Kameron on a day-to-day basis, a big, physical guy, a traditional big guy, where he’s not trying to chase a smaller guy, that’s tough for him. I think he struggled in guarding David Kravish, because David played on the perimeter, and he wasn’t used to that. I think it helps him in guarding Kameron Rooks on a day-to-day basis.”
As for Rooks, Rabb – who watched Rooks as a true freshman – offered his observations of the redshirt sophomore big man.
“Kameron, he seems motivated,” Rabb said. “He’s motivated, and he’s focused. He wants to have a big year just like everybody else. He wants to be a big focal point in the offense, and I believe that he can. He’s got very good post moves, he plays through contact, and for him, it’s all about continuing to stay in shape, just like the rest of us. He’ll be a huge part of the team this year.”
With Okoroh and a healthy Rooks banging about with Rabb down low has helped all of them improve, and it shows.
“I think it will make him better, because you have to go through it,” Martin said of Rabb. “With Kam and Kingsley, that’s seven feet – between those two, 7-foot-1, 7-foot-2 – and they’re also between 240 and 260 pounds. Now, Ivan’s picked up 11 pounds since he’s been here, but to bang against that type of physical play every day in practice, I think it’ll help him in the long run.”
Rabb is not a center, by any means, but he’ll have to play against those types of players in the Pac-12, as well as guard players anywhere from 6-foot-5 to seven feet in games.
“It’s helping me a lot,” Rabb said. “I love the challenge every day. They’re not just regular seven-foot guys. They’re seven-foot guys with weight on them, so they’re definitely really strong, and every day, I’m getting better. I’m using that against them, and trying to do some pushing.”
The pushing is the biggest difference in Rabb. He’s not just a finesse guy anymore, thanks to that extra weight, which is apparent when looking at his arms and shoulders.
“I’ve gotten a lot better; I know that,” Rabb said. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot stronger, and that helped my game a lot, because people aren’t moving me around on the court as much. I’m actually doing a little bit of pushing, and I love that. If I continue to work hard and do what the coaches tell me to do, I can continue to do that. I’m expanding my range on my jump shot. I’m more comfortable on the block. Everything is working out, so I want to continue to make those leaps.”
The Australia trip will be the first time that Domingo – who transferred from Georgetown and sat out last season – will get to suit up in something other than a Cal polo shirt and slacks.
“I think the one thing that Stephen brings to the table is that he makes shots from the three-point line, and where he’s improved is his ability to shot fake and be aggressive and exploding to the rim,” Martin said. “He’s always been a guy that can shoot the ball, in my opinion, but now he has that ability to get that shot fake, especially with bigger guys on him. It’s tough, especially when you’re playing him at a four position – that means you have four guards on the perimeter – and if you’ve got a traditional big guy, it’s tough to guard him, the way he moves.”
Martin said that Domingo can now move around the floor, depending on how the other team is aligned, defensively. Having both Okoroh and Rooks, as well as Rabb and the 6-foot-8 Brown allows Martin the luxury of a lot of options as far as setting his rotation.
“That’s a major asset for us,” Martin said.
While the focus of much of the coverage lately on the Bears has been focused on Rabb and Brown, the first piece of the puzzle that fell into place for this group – before those two even committed – was Wallace, turning down the NBA to return for his senior season.
“He’s helped everybody on the team,” Rabb said. “He’s been in my ear a lot. I can’t speak for Jaylen, but I’m sure he has, just giving us pointers, telling us things we could do to improve and make the game easier for ourselves. That’s something that we can really appreciate, because we do want to come in and have a great year. The only way we can do that is if we work together, and we really appreciate Ty. He’s definitely been a leader on the team.”
With many projecting a deep NCAA Tournament run for Cal, including Arizona’s head coach Sean Miller, Rabb isn’t blinking.
“Honestly, I’ve been dealing with that type of pressure since I’ve been in high school, and it’s something I thrive on,” Rabb said. “But, really, it’s not about all of that. We’re trying to go to Australia to get better. We have this time after that to get better. We just want to get better every time people see us, and if that leads us to a really great season, that’s what it is. That’s what we expect.”
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