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Duke, UNC look west for Ivan Rabb

Elite Youth Basketball
SARA CALDWELL - AP
Oakland's Ivan Rabb (44) puts up a shot during the 2014 Elite Youth Basketball League finals on Thursday in North Augusta, S.C.

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. Ivan Rabb was on an unofficial visit to North Carolina during May when his coach offered a suggestion: Why not stop by Duke, too? After all, they had come from Oakland, Calif., so it’s not like they were close to Durham on a regular basis.

Rabb took Lou Richie, his coach at Oakland Bishop O’Dowd High, up on his suggestion. And once Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski realized the player ESPN has ranked No. 1 in the Class of 2015 was headed over, he and his staff sat down with the two. Both sides left the meeting with renewed mutual interest.

It would be hard to fault the Blue Devils for not being more aggressive earlier in Rabb’s career. Not many high schoolers choose to attend college on the opposite side of the country. Duke hasn’t recruited a player to Durham from a state touching the Pacific Ocean since Kyle Singler (Medford, Ore.) and Taylor King (Huntington Beach, Calif.) in 2007.

But Rabb, a 6-foot-11, 220-pound forward, is a different type of kid. UNC clearly isn’t worried about any preexisting ties to the West Coast, as the Tar Heels have made him one of their top priorities. For his part, Rabb said distance won’t be a factor in his recruitment.

“I’m not really a guy that gets homesick,” he said while playing in the prestigious Nike EYBL Finals (Peach Jam) over the weekend.

Then he paused.

“I used to be, actually. I take that back,” he said. “Freshman year in high school I used to get homesick, but now I’m used to being away from home.”

Rabb described a tournament over Christmas break in Hawaii, how he wasn’t used to being away from his family over the holidays. Not calling home much didn’t help, either.

But that’s in the past. Rabb’s future could take many geographical directions, as California, Southern California, UCLA, Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Georgetown all are pursuing his services. Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats one state over, though, might be tough to beat.

Arizona was the first to make an offer to Rabb, and that came the summer after his ninth-grade year. That’s when Rabb came onto the national scene, after a strong performance at the LeBron James skills academy with an encore at the Boo Williams tournament in Hampton, Va.

“That’s when it finally hit me that coaches were, like, big-name coaches were actually watching me play,” Rabb said. “So, I must be doing something right, and I’ve just continued to work and have gotten better from there.”

Last year provided another moment that confirmed Rabb had arrived, he said. After playing in the Elite 24 event in Brooklyn, N.Y., John Wall followed him on Twitter. At first, Rabb thought it was just a parody account – but to his surprise and excitement, it was Raleigh’s real John Wall.

Rabb’s at the age now when good friends he has spent years playing with are in the NBA. Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft out of Arizona, sent him a text message of encouragement before the LeBron James camp. The two played AAU together in the Soldiers’ organization, along with current Wildcats Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson (notice a trend?).

All signs indicate Rabb soon will join Gordon in the NBA as well. He is ambidextrous, with a 7-4 wingspan, and shoots and runs the floor well for a big man. He also is considered a great teammate, someone who doesn’t have to shoot the ball every time it’s in his hands. He needs to get stronger to hold better position in the post, but he has time to add that. He doesn’t lack confidence.

“Even when I was just a no-name in California, I always felt like I was one of the best players in the country, even if I hadn’t played people across the country,” he said. “It’s just how I was raised.”

Those bold words belie a soft-spoken Rabb, who also could stand to be more aggressive on the court. But there’s a lot to like about the No. 1 recruit in the country. Enough to convince two Hall of Fame coaches on the East Coast to go against the grain and recruit a player who lives almost 3,000 miles away.

Twitter: @laurakeeley
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