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Jabari Parker sharpens his game as Duke enters its most difficult stretch

Jabari Parker In his last eight ACC games, Jabari Parker has attacked the basket rather than settle for jumpers. (Raleigh News & Observer via Getty)

Nine days ago, Boston College’s plan for Jabari Parker was to let the Duke star freshman do what he wanted to do. In the estimation of Eagles coach Steve Donahue and his staff, what Parker wanted to do was take what the defense gave him, almost to his detriment. If allowed space to fire a jumper, he’d fire a jumper. And if he was firing jumpers, Parker wasn’t using a rolling redwood trunk of a 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame to charge the rim.

The results did not match the Eagles’ intent that night. Parker went off for 29 points on 12-of-17 shooting. Upon further reflection Monday, Donahue all but apologized to every coach in the ACC and beyond for the monster his team may have unleashed.

“I was hoping he was going to continue to do the stuff he was doing, which was settling,” Donahue said. “You’d back off him and he settled. And he’s a very, very average college shooter right now. In our game, our guys made the mistake of getting him up him. I think we woke him up a little bit.”

If Duke cannot rest in its most meaningful stretch of the season – four games in eight days, including consecutive battles with North Carolina and Syracuse – it can rest assured that its most talented player has discovered how to maximize his effectiveness. And the “how” is blunt-force trauma: Barreling directly to the paint or to the rim, where Parker’s physical gifts overwhelm most anyone at this level.

In his past eight games, Parker has averaged 20.4 points on 46.2 percent shooting. He had produced 10.5 points on 30.4 shooting in his first four ACC outings. It is no coincidence that, according to ESPN statistics, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer has attempted 70 percent of his shots in the paint in those eight games – as opposed to 37 percent to start the ACC season. It is precisely what Duke and its opponents knew long before this revival: Parker can thrive in the post. He can dominate on drives into the lane. It was just a matter of convincing him to be that imposing presence and not undermine his own strengths.

“All I know is,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday, “when you have a freshman, he has a chance to improve in all areas of his game and needs to learn about first how to improve the talents he has, and then how to use those talents in a new environment. Jabari has followed like a steady progress of being a really talented young player who’s going through those two things. He still needs to do that as he progresses in his career.”

However the message was delivered, it appears to have taken hold. Against Wake Forest on Feb. 4, Parker led a Duke win with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, hoisting just one three-point attempt.

That led Jeff Bzdelik and a coaching staff with 60-plus years of NBA experience combined to marvel at the specimen before them. They saw Parker play with enough command and assertiveness in one game to stamp their scouting report. “I think he is just really ready for the NBA,” Bzdelik said. “He really impressed me – if he’s attacking the rim, it’s hard to keep him from getting there. I don’t care who you are. It’s hard. He’s thicker than what people think.”

The problem, at least based on the numbers: When Parker scuffled early in ACC action, it seemed he didn’t think of himself that way. Twenty of his 46 shots in that stretch came from beyond the three-point arc.

“There’s a way different explosiveness to that kid when he attacks the rim that I have not seen in college basketball,” Donahue said. “I don’t know how you get in front of that and stop it. He’s got explosiveness and size and dexterity. When he does that it’s impressive.

“He settled a lot (earlier), he was shooting in the 30s in our league, and for a kid like that, that should never happen. Now he’s decided, ‘I know I can take it to the rim,’ and you’re seeing the results.”

It’s not that Parker has limited himself strictly; he attempted six three-pointers against Maryland on Saturday, accounting for half his total field goal attempts. But he had attempted just one shot from long range in four of his previous five games. And he also shot 10 free throws, his second-straight game with double-digit attempts from the line, suggesting an approach geared toward attacking the iron. As long as the post play or penetration off the dribble sets up the long-range game – instead of the other way around – Parker should be efficient and nearly unguardable.

“The combination of his strength and explosiveness, and taking the ball to the basket and posting up on occasion and sprinkling in perimeter jump shots – he’s a tough matchup all the way around,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said.

It's manifesting every night now that Parker has decided to make it tough on opponents. Duke can clamber back into ACC championship position if it can survive a brutal stretch this week. The good news is Jabari Parker is leading the charge.

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