As the din rose at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday, Jabari Parker’s eyes widened and locked in on the action. Notre Dame concocted a fervent second-half rally, and Duke was trying to smother it, each possession overflowing with intrigue. The Blue Devils’ lodestar freshman bent forward intently in a defensive stance. It was precisely what one might hope to see from Parker in the moment.
Except that one also would hope to see Parker in the game.
He most decidedly was not, packed among teammates on the sideline during the most critical moments of his first ACC contest ever. Parker sat the final three and a half minutes of what became a 79-77 loss for Duke, and immediately the question became what would become of him. How would a player who has had so very few bad nights process the worst one of his nascent college career, not to mention the benching that punctuated it?
Per the guy who did the benching, Parker processes it by suiting up for Georgia Tech on Tuesday. “It’s not sitting in the last three minutes of the game – he had a bad game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “Any player who’s having a bad game, during that time, you’re going to put in players who are having a better game and have them in the game. He’s a human being. A great pitcher who has a 1.80 ERA sometimes gets hit for nine runs in a game, and he’s not in at the end of a game. How does he process it – the next time he starts, he tries to be the 1.80 ERA guy.”
Parker left the building without a word on Saturday, so his own answer will arrive via his performance and then whatever interviews follow in the comfort of the home locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It is worth noting that Parker is in the most mini of mini-slumps, recording season-low scoring outputs in two consecutive games: First 12 points against Elon on Dec. 31, then the seven points on 2-of-10 shooting against the Irish on Saturday.
It is also worth noting that Saturday was the first game of his college career that Parker did not score in double figures. It’s reaching to suggest a supremely talented freshman “needed” a knock-down game for a useful dose of humility, or at least it is with this supremely talented freshman. Parker has the usual healthy ego for a great player. But outside observers suggest few similarly gifted freshmen in this situation are equipped better to handle adversity.
“He always had a calm demeanor,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said as his team prepared for Parker and the Blue Devils. “But even with all this heat thrown at him right way, and everybody watching, I am so impressed with his poise and calm, with all the expectations and everybody watching every little move. He’s a freakish talent. Always has been. None of the basketball stuff surprises me. He has the body to do it right away, and he has the skill. But he’s handling his business like a 22-year-old senior who’s played 100 college games. That’s what is so impressive.”
Parker will process it well because he innately can. As for actual on-court production, Duke surely would benefit from more work on the low block instead of settling for face-up jump shots. Notre Dame didn’t write the book on how to limit Parker, really; the Irish just aimed to crowd Parker when he received the ball and make him feel or see two bodies as opposed to being liberated to go one-on-one. Presumably, it’s something other teams have tried and will try again and nothing Parker hasn’t seen before. The benching was another matter. Maybe even the bad day, too. Where Parker goes from there is a key, but not necessarily a question. “No one plays well all the time," Krzyzewski said. "The fact that somebody can play well most of the time is what separates you. This was one of times he didn’t play well, and hopefully those are kept at a minimum.”