The knock on Jabari Parker coming into his freshman year at Duke centered on his perceived shortcomings as an athlete. Was he quick enough to guard or score against small forwards? Could he stick with bigger, stronger power forwards?
All of this was really just a way of asking where does Parker fit in an NBA lineup?
But the question for a player like Parker, particularly with the way the professional game evolved over the past few seasons, is backwards. An NBA lineup ought to fit around him.
A 6-foot-8, 241-pound forward with a 7-foot wingspan who can score, rebound and protect the rim shouldn't be confined to just one position.
Players like Parker present unique matchup problems. LeBron James plays small forward, but he's a matchup nightmare at the four. The same goes for Carmelo Anthony, who has played his best basketball for the Knicks in a smaller lineup playing opposing power forwards.
Even a player in steady decline due to age like Paul Pierce has thrived in Brooklyn's small-ball lineups as a non-traditional four.
When you have a player like Parker, there's no need to fit a square peg into a round hole. You can go big with him at the three and pound teams on the glass, or play him at the four without giving up much at the defensive end. His three-point shooting actually makes him the ideal NBA stretch four. Parker's length, build, and polish as a scorer makes him impossible for smaller wings to guard as a three if he takes them him the post.
Parker has embraced comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, seen as a pejorative in some ways, and the numbers bear out a striking resemblance.
Per 40 minutes, Parker averages 25.8 points per game, 11.4 rebounds, making 51.5 percent of his two-point buckets and 36.7 percent of his threes.
Per 40 minutes as a freshman at Syracuse, Carmelo averaged 24.4 points per game, 11 rebounds, making 49.6 percent of his twos, and 33.7 percent of his threes.
A holiday swoon let some air out of the 'Parker as the No. 1 pick' balloon, but since scoring just eight points against Virginia on Jan. 13, Parker is averaging 20 points, 11.4 rebounds, while shooting 47.5 percent over the last month. His scoring numbers are in line with his season averages (19.2 on 48.2 percent), but he's rebounding above his season average of 8.2.
Parker has embraced the post, where he's finding ways to score, and playing some excellent post defense, blocking two or more shots in with three of his last six games.
Offensively, Parker looks like he can thrive in the same way Anthony has, but as a rebounder and defensive player, the Duke product boasts a considerable advantage at this stage in his development.
Coincidentally, Andrew Wiggins was lauded as the best prep prospect since LeBron James, the man taken No. 1 overall the same year Denver took Carmelo Anthony No. 3.
Best of the rest: Other NBA prospects
Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State -- Smart leads this section not because of what he did on the court, but what he did just off of it. An ugly scene in Lubbock saw Smart shove a fan and subsequently receive a three-game suspension.
Marcus Smart is ruining his reputation this season. This is just unfortunate and ugly.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 9, 2014
On top of that, it was one of Smart's better, more efficient games in recent weeks. Smart finished with 22 points and shot above 50 percent for the first time in a month.
Joel Embiid, F/C, Kansas -- Embiid had his worst game as a starter to begin the week -- five points and seven rebounds against Baylor -- but a solid, efficient game to end it -- 11 points and 12 rebounds in just 17 minutes against West Virginia. If anything, the story on Embiid right now is Kansas ought to find a way to get him more touches. The talented Jayhawk freshman big man doesn't have a single game with 10 or more field goal attempts this season. Staying out of foul trouble has made getting shots harder of late, as Embiid hasn't been able to stay on the court for extended stretches.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- Since dropping a career-best 29 points on Iowa State in late January, Wiggins is shooting 12-of-39 in three games. That being said, it's hard to complain about a freshman averaging 16 and 6 on a loaded darkhorse Final Four team. Wiggins appears more confident taking the ball to the basket and now has double-digit shot attempts in five straight games. Now, he needs to establish where his spots on the floor are and work to get there.
Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- After starting the season as a double-double machine, Randle's rebounding and scoring numbers have taken a step back. Both, in part, can be attributed to the stacked Kentucky roster beginning to coalesce and some of the tertiary pieces finding their respective niches. Randle led Kentucky over Mississippi State with 16 and 7, and flashes offensive skills all over the court. One thing to watch as the season finishes: if Randle's rebounding numbers continue to fall, is it because his opposite grabs them, or are teammates like James Young and Willie Cauley-Stein cleaning the glass instead?
Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona -- In terms of polish, Gordon leaves much to be desired, but on natural athletic talent and effort, the Wildcat forward has few peers. Offensively, outsode of lobs and putbacks, Gordon fails to measure up to his fellow potential lottery picks -- and his free throw shooting would make DeAndre Jordan blush. Gordon rebounds at a rate below players like Randle and Parker, but his defensive has been remarkable. Able to defense threes, fours, and fives, Gordon allows 88.3 points per 100 possessions, well ahead of basically every lottery-bound big -- Randle (95.5), Parker (97.9), even Embiid (89.7) -- and just behind Indiana's Noah Vonleh (87.5).
Melvin Ejim, F, Iowa State -- Not on the NBA's radar much to start the year, a dominating performance over the weekend could see his stock soar. Ejim scored 48 points (on 20-of-24 shots!), and grabbed 18 rebounds against TCU. Coming into the game, Ejim was seen as a borderline draftable prospect, a 6-foot-6 forward who could struggle to find a role at the next level. But a breakout performance could be the type of catalyst for a late rise up draft boards and at least get into firm position in the second round.
Adreian Payne, F, Michigan State -- A burly forward on one of the country's toughest teams, Payne has lived up to his name lately, mostly because an injury had him riding the bench. But in his first extended action, Payne came up huge for the Spartans on the road, scoring 24 points against Wisconsin, including a late three to tie the game. At 6-foot-10, Payne actually shoots 42.9 percent from deep (on 42 attempts) to go along with a bullish post game and hard-nosed rebounding. Now healthy again, Payne looks like a lottery lock.
Games To Watch
Wednesday, Feb. 12 No. 11 Duke vs. North Carolina
Parker's resurgence buoyed the Blue Devils, but his game will be tested against the Jekyl-and-Hyde Tar Heels who boast an athletic frontcourt of their own with James Michael McAdo, Brice Johnson and JP Tokoto. Duke's other potential lottery pick for 2014, Rodney Hood, will likely see much of the game matched up with Tokoto, and perhaps Leslie McDonald. Hood comes in having one of the best under-the-radar seasons in America as a shooter, but has a chance to show off his entire floor game against NBA-caliber size and ability.
Saturday, Feb. 15 No. 3 Florida vs. No. 18 Kentucky
The SEC matchup we've been waiting for all season as Julius Randle and his team of loaded underclassmen, take on the undefeated Gators with Chris Walker back in the fold. Randle and sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein will be tested against Patrick Young, Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguette in the paint for Florida. And on the wing, James Young and the Harrison twins will face Casey Prather and Scotty Wilbekin for Florida. Even though Gators coach Billy Donovan doesn't like playing freshman, this is the perfect type of game to unleash the uber-talented Walker -- it would make for the perfect launching point for his march toward the lottery.