Jabari Parker, Julius Randle or Andrew Wiggins? All three are amazing
CHICAGO -- There are so many ways to sum up Jabari Parker's amazing night here. He outplayed Kansas's Andrew Wiggins, the most hyped freshman in many years. He outshined Kentucky's Julius Randle, a contender for the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. His Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski, said Parker was "sensational," and LeBron James (presumably watching both Wiggins and Parker) tweeted "GM's wish the draft was tomorrow," and ... well, it was incredible on so many levels, but the best summary of Parker's night came from Parker himself.
I asked him: How would you grade your performance?
He said: "C-minus."
C-minus! Parker had just scored 27 points on just 18 shots in a variety of ridiculous ways, grabbed nine rebounds, added two steals and a block, and only committed two turnovers. It was the second game of his career, in his hometown, against one of the top five teams in the country. Parker was unfazed. And if you want to understand how difficult it is to choose one guy as the No. 1 prospect in college basketball, start there, with Jabari Parker's grade for his marvelous performance: C-minus.
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Andrew Wiggins. Julius Randle. Jabari Parker. You can't go wrong with any of them ... except that, when you pick one, you pass on the other two. And they each showed, in their own way Tuesday night, that they will be stars in the pros.
Randle, the Kentucky power forward, went first. He may have had the most difficult assignment of the three freshmen, because he had to face a veteran team, Michigan State, that is probably the best in the country at muscle-on-muscle defense. He was also the only one who was being held back by his own coach.
I don't think John Calipari wanted to lose the game, but he was more OK with a loss than Tom Izzo, Bill Self or Krzyzewski. I doubt Calipari will ever admit this, unless he decides to write it in his next book, or one of the four books after that. But he needs his players to understand that playing together matters. Experience, toughness, listening to your coach ... all of that matters. And he can't prove to his freshmen simply by saying it in film sessions.
Before the game, Calipari said it was "not fair" for his freshmen to play a team as experienced and great as Michigan State. This was funny, because nobody made Calipari recruit a new team every year -- he chooses to do it -- and because a few weeks ago, Calipari declared, "We don't just play college basketball. We are college basketball."
But the man knew what he was doing. He jacked up the expectations as high as he could ("we ARE college basketball!") then warned everybody that his players they weren't ready for those expectations, and now he has a loss to prove it. This will help Kentucky this season. There will be no more undefeated talk, no more No. 1 ranking for a while.
The thing is, Kentucky almost beat Michigan State anyway, for one reason: Randle. He is a beast. Michigan State's Branden Dawson, who did an admirable job on Randle at times, said afterward, "I'm sore all around ... He's strong. I didn't really think he was that strong. He is just tough." Randle is so strong that his high-fives frighten me. Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens said Randle reminds him of a more athletic Zach Randolph.
Randle has an array of left-handed post moves, a juggler's hands, and great touch around the rim. You rarely see that kind of talent, and when you do, the guy who has it usually doesn't know what to do with it. Think of all the freaks at the top of drafts in the last 20 years who just turned out to be good or very good NBA players. Randle is different.
"He is relentless to score," Dawson said. "He demands the ball. You really don't see that too much, a freshman coming in that hungry to score. But he wants to score on every possession."
Izzo called him "ornery and nasty," and Randle didn't even really flash the perimeter game that wowed people when he was in high school. He needs to learn a few basketball lessons: Establish position closer to the basket, don't needlessly bring the ball down where it can get stripped, that sort of thing. He finished with eight turnovers, more than the whole Michigan State team. Still, the talent and desire are undeniable.
The last classic post player to win the NBA's MVP award was Tim Duncan in 2003. In 2020 or so, Randle could be the next one.
How could you pass up a guy like Randle? In one game -- in one half --- Parker showed us. He sank three-pointers. He slashed through the lane and hit an off-balance floater. Parker is not supposed to be an elite athlete, yet he went way, way up for an alley-oop.
He also seems to see the game unfold before anybody else does. That kind of court vision and sense is reminiscent of the best player Krzyzewski ever coached at Duke, Grant Hill. At times, Parker scored so easily, he looked a little like Kevin Durant. His quick jab-step and ability to lift and score from everywhere looked like Paul Pierce. Yes, I know: These are some heady comparisons. What can I say? Against Kansas, Parker looked like the Frank Caliendo of basketball, doing impressions of anybody he wanted.
Still, that C-minus is what stands out. Kansas beat Duke, 94-83, and it was killing Parker. He even said, "There's no excuses not to show up for our family." I mean, 27 points and nine rebounds against a top-five team in his second college game ... I think his family can forgive him.
But that is Parker. He blamed himself for defensive lapses, and said he should have grabbed more rebounds, even though he spent a lot of offensive time on the perimeter and grabbed more defensive rebounds than anybody else in the game. You see why Izzo, who recruited him like a madman and lost him anyway, still raves about him.
As teammate Quinn Cook said: "He wants to be great. If it's a scrimmage, a practice, a free-throw competition, he wants to be great. He is a workhorse."
Parker insisted: "I didn't play that well ... Offense is always going to be there. You're going to get shots, no matter what. You're going to get looks. The most important thing is defense. Defense wins championships."
Then, as if he was tired of all the NBA talk and the Wiggins talk and even the talk about him, he said, with a startling level of intensity: "I want to win. Forget everything else. That's all I'm looking for is winning. That's all that matters to me."
Is that all that matters to Wiggins? He is the toughest nut to crack in the group, even though he has gotten the most hype. He was famously quiet during recruiting; he didn't even talk to the people recruiting him very much.
For most of the first half against Duke, Wiggins looked like just another athletic freshman. His outside shot is still developing. He picked up two quick fouls and sat. He drifted a bit.
But in the second half, Wiggins showed something we could not have anticipated, and that bodes well for the rest of his basketball career. With another freshman clearly outplaying him, Wiggins did not force shots or complain constantly to the refs. He did not get frustrated. He did not panic or make the game about him.
As Kansas coach Bill Self said afterward, "He's so mild-mannered and non-demonstrative in his actions. Things look easy to him. But he is competitive. That dude wanted ... he came to me, the whole deal: "Let me guard Jabari. I want to guard Jabari.' "
Who does that? What kind of freshman is that oblivious to expectations that he just wants to defend? Wiggins defended Parker extremely well and finished with 22 points and eight rebounds in just 25 minutes. His facial expression never really changed until the very end, when the win was his, and he let out a big smile and hugged his teammates. We knew he was a terrific player. But he really looked like a winning player.
So: No. 1 pick, who would you take? There is a long way to go. Right now, my short answer is Parker, Randle, Wiggins, in that order. My shorter answer: Any one, please.