Prospect Watch: Parker the most NBA-ready pick?
Before Andrew Wiggins was anointed "the best high school player since LeBron," that title was reserved for Jabari Parker, who gained national fame for his performances at Chicago's Simeon Academy.
For all of the great players to play at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, it's not hyperbole to suggest that Parker may be the most naturally talented and highly touted prospect of them all.
Unlike some other recent high school phenoms to hit the scene, Parker has been delivering on the promise of his potential from Day 1. He became the first player since Kevin Durant to score 20 or more in his first seven games, and his diverse scoring repertoire has led some to draw comparisons to Carmelo Anthony.
Despite a rather inefficient 7-for-21 performance in Duke's 72-68 loss against Arizona last Friday, Parker is averaging 23 points and eight rebounds while shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range in eight games. He's already gone against fellow star freshmen Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Aaron Gordon of Arizona and more than held his own on the offensive end.
Draft Express' Jonathan Givony expressed little concern over Parker's off shooting night against the Wildcats, noting his proficiency scoring in the post.
Jabari Parker's jumper was due for a "regression to the mean" game (his %s were off the charts), but he's been impressive inside the post.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) November 30, 2013
Parker, who struggled to get jumpers to fall against the Wildcats, also displayed maturity for a freshman by deciding to assert himself to get easier looks. In doing so, he showcased a deft feel for scoring with big bodies around him, as well as some impressive post play, particularly on one possession in which he sealed his smaller defender to the inside and got a dunk.
And perhaps we can use that as a hint as to where Parker's game is headed. In some ways, he's similar to Paul Pierce: Parker lacks a lean frame, but has tremendous strength and surprising athleticism. He's unafraid as a scorer and can bully smaller wings on the block.
If Parker can develop the same sort of craftiness on the defensive end to compensate for his lack of elite quickness, he could pester talented players the same way Pierce has in the NBA. What's more, Parker willingly competes on both ends and has been a solid help defender and shot-blocker down low.
Parker has also already shown improvement as he gets older -- let's remember these freshmen are 18 and 19 years old. As ESPN's director of recruiting notes, Parker is noticeably stronger and fitter at Duke:
Watched Jabari Parker throughout his HS career. Without question the biggest difference in his game is his body.More stamina, and stronger.— Paul Biancardi (@PaulBiancardi) November 30, 2013
But Parker, like any NBA prospect, isn't without his question marks. The biggest concern is his NBA position. At 6-foot-8, he has the skill inside and out to play either forward position and score. But can he defend bigger power forwards in the NBA? And is he quick enough to handle professional wings?
SI.com's Seth Davis tweeted during the Arizona game that he believed Parker and Wiggins were on the same level athletically. That stance is somewhat against the grain of conventional thinking on Parker, whom many thought was at least a tick below elite in terms of his explosiveness. But Parker will only solidify his stock if he continues to prove that he can hang with the elite prospects athletically.
For all the preseason adulation for Wiggins and Kentucky's slew of freshmen, Parker might be the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft.
"I had never seen a freshman score like him," Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack told SI.com's Luke Winn after the game, "and I think he can be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft."
Best of the rest: Updates on other NBA prospects
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- After an impressive start, the presumptive No. 1 pick has struggled lately. After finishing with 17 points and seven rebounds in an assertive and efficient effort against Wake Forest, Wiggins slumped through an upset loss to Villanova and a narrow win over UTEP.
In those games, he shot a combined 5-for-17 and scored just 16 points. This is, for better or worse, what you're going to get from Wiggins from time to time. He plays on a loaded Jayhawks team with three potential lottery picks, all of whom want the ball.
Kansas doesn't placate stars by designing a system around them, but rather asks the players to play within the system. It isn't time to throw up a red flag just yet, but it's worth following to see how Wiggins bounces back.
Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- The regression has also come for Kentucky's brute freshman forward, at least as a scorer. In his last three games, Randle is 12-for-30 from the floor with 12 turnovers. Randle was bound to cool off after a blistering start, but what makes him a special prospect is his ability to affect the game even when he's not scoring.
In those three games, Randle grabbed 15, 10 and eight rebounds, the last of which stopped his streak of seven games with a double-double. Randle also continues to hit from the free-throw line, making 73.3 percent for the season. Kentucky will live with an inefficient offensive stretch from a post player who can make foul shots and doesn't need the ball to help it win.
Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State -- Smart's encore performance against Memphis left plenty to be desired (he had 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting in Sunday's 73-68 loss), but after demolishing the Tigers for 39 points in a 101-80 victory Nov. 19, it's safe to assume he was targeted defensively.
Still, Smart's evolution as a shooter has put him in the conversation as a top-three pick. After his outburst in the first meeting against Memphis, Smart dropped 25 points on South Florida and 30 on Purdue, again showing previously unseen efficiency as a shooter. He's averaging 20.5 points and shooting 46 percent, up from 40 percent as a freshman.
His game against Butler last Friday is a microcosm of what Smart can give an NBA team. He scored 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting while grabbing eight boards and dishing three assists, with two steals and a block. He's a do-it-all combo guard who makes "combo" not seem like such a dirty word in NBA circles.
Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona -- Gordon, like Wiggins, isn't going to post sexy numbers on a consistent basis. He's not a go-to scorer on his team, which also happens to be loaded with talent. But Gordon plays hard and will defend with energy.
He admitted after the Duke game that he set out to defend Parker and not worry about his offensive game. Gordon's length and athleticism bothered Parker all night and forced the inefficient output -- 19 points on 21 shots.
The comparisons to Blake Griffin will continue, for better and worse. Gordon has yet to develop a reliable post game and has no go-to move. He gets his 12.1 points per game mostly off energy, his outlandish explosiveness and trailing jumpers. To be a top-five pick, Gordon would do well to expand his repertoire as a scorer, particularly with players like Smart, Randle and Parker all capable of getting their own shots.
Jerami Grant, F, Syracuse -- Keep an eye on the Orange's Grant, who got off to a slow start before dominating the Maui Invitational with his frontcourt mate C.J. Fair. In three games, the 6-8 sophomore averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. He was particularly impressive in the latter two games, scoring 19 points each time and shooting a combined 15-for-23 in victories against Cal and Baylor.
Even against Baylor's tall, athletic frontcourt, Grant was consistently first off the floor for rebounds and tip-backs, showing off his athleticism and length. His jumper remains a work in progress, but it was broken when he got to Syracuse, which means it's at least getting better.
As a defender and rebounder for his position, Grant is NBA-ready. If he continues to make strides as a scorer and shooter, look out.
Games of the Week
Tuesday, Dec. 3: Syracuse vs. Indiana
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge will be stocked with NBA talent. Syracuse, with NBA prospects Grant, Fair and point guard Tyler Ennis, meets Indiana in a rematch of a 2013 NCAA tournament regional semifinal. Indiana doesn't have nearly as much talent as last year, but freshman Noah Vonleh is a potential future lottery pick. He should be able to rebound against the Orange's 2-3 zone, but can he score on it? Will Fair and Grant be able to score and rebound with him patrolling the paint? NBA scouts will be watching to see.
Tuesday, Dec. 3: No. 22 Michigan vs. No. 3 Duke
Another test for Parker, who will see the burly Mitch McGary in the paint and Glenn Robinson III on the wing. Parker will probably defend and be defended by both players at times, depending on the lineups. Expect Robinson III to match up with versatile Duke forward Rodney Hood, another potential first-round pick. Add in Nik Stauskas against a deep Duke wing contingent, and suddenly there are least five potential first-round picks in this game.
Wednesday, Dec. 4: No. 16 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Michigan State
The matchup of the Spartans' Adrien Payne against the Tar Heels' James Michael McAdoo will be critical in this game and for their respective draft stocks. Spartans guard Gary Harris will also get another showcase game for his scoring talents against a North Carolina team struggling to defend. Particularly for McAdoo, a 6-9 junior forward, this is an important litmus test for how much progress he's made as a Tar Heel.
Friday, Dec. 6: No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 18 Baylor
This will be another good early-season test for Randle, as well as for his highly touted classmates James Young and Andrew Harrison and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Baylor 7-footer Isaiah Austin could announce his arrival in the first-round mix with a solid game against such a talented frontcourt.