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The case for Jabari Parker at No. 1

Andrew Wiggins (left) might have more upside, but Jabari Parker may be better now. Photo:

Andrew Wiggins (left) might have more upside, but Jabari Parker may be better now.

Maybe Andrew Wiggins will turn out to be the best player in this NBA Draft. He loves to play defense, which you can’t say of many top NBA draft picks, and he has been called a freak athlete so many times that Freak Athlete seems like part of his name: Freak Athlete Andrew Wiggins.

Or maybe Wiggins’s Kansas teammate, Joel Embiid, will be the best. Embiid looked like the No. 1 pick until his recent foot injury, and while the words “injury-prone, inexperienced center with potential” are absolutely frightening at this time of year, Embiid is different. He doesn’t just have All-Star talent; he has All-Star moves right now. Absolutely, he could be the best player out of this draft if he is healthy.

Or maybe Dante Exum will be the best. He looked like it in international competition last summer, when he more than held his own against most of the top players in this year’s draft.

Any of those things is possible. But the No. 1 pick should be Jabari Parker. The Duke forward is a scoring machine, a natural winner, with the mental acuity, physical skills and priorities to be a foundational player for an NBA title contender. The Cleveland Cavaliers should take him No. 1, put him on the floor with Kyrie Irving, and watch them develop into one of the best duos in the NBA.

People often throw backhanded compliments at Parker: He is the “safe pick”  who is “most likely to help right away.” The implication is that Parker is sure to be good but is unlikely to be great. Look closer, and you’ll see that he is the draft prospect who is most likely to be great.

Parker played out of position for most of the season at Duke. He split most of his time between power forward and center, when he is really a small forward. I don’t fault Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for this. Coach K’s job is to win games, and with Duke’s limited roster, it made sense to play Parker inside.

But what makes Parker great is that he is a pure-shooting small forward who can handle the ball, even though he has the size of power forward. (At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Parker is roughly the same size as LeBron James, though with a different build.) A player that big, with Parker’s skill set and mental toughness, can absolutely devastate defenses from the outside in. He is a better athlete than people realize, even though he is not the runner and leaper that Wiggins is. Parker can post up -- he did it in high school -- but in the NBA, he will only do that when he has a matchup advantage against a smaller player. At Duke, he had to do it all the time.

Parker still showed the skills that will make him one of the top picks in this year’s draft. The most common NBA comparison for Parker is Carmelo Anthony, and their freshman stats (available on sports-reference.com) are amazingly similar:

Parker: 50.4% from two-point range, 35.8% from three, 25 points and 11.4 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Anthony: 49.6% from two-point range, 33.7% from three, 24.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per 40 minutes.

There are three main differences between the two. At Syracuse, Anthony got to play small forward, his natural position. He also played in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, so we did not see the two weaknesses we saw with Parker -- fitness (the zone does not require as much running) and defensive attentiveness (Parker, like most freshmen, had some lapses).

The third difference, of course, is that Anthony led Syracuse to the national championship while Parker’s Duke team lost to Mercer in the first round. Parker played poorly in that game -- he only scored 14 points on 14 shots. But it was one game. In Wiggins’s final college game, against Stanford in the second round, he scored four points on six shots. That was also only one game, of course, but what was disturbing was not just Wiggins’ off shooting night. He showed no interest in trying to take over the game. Wiggins is a terrific, unselfish, gifted player. But nothing about him makes you think he will be a leader. He is legendarily quiet. Wiggins has star talent but he has the mentality of a complementary player.

Parker is different. He has had his mind set on being the best since he entered high school. He needs to pay close attention to nutrition so he avoids excess body fat, but talk to people who know him and they insist he will be in shape. Basketball means too much to him. His character is above reproach -- there is almost no chance of Parker getting lazy or partying too much when he gets his first NBA paycheck.

Even when he struggled occasionally in the post at Duke, Parker never stopped competing. He averaged 9.8 rebounds in ACC play -- again, this is a natural small forward --  and showed he will scrap with bigger players. That should encourage any of the teams at the top of the lottery; they each have a long way to go to become title contenders, and Parker wants to drive the bus.

If you were an NBA general manager, with your job on the line -- because a general manager’s job is always on the line -- how could you pass this up? Understand: Last year, Wiggins got to play his natural position, for a more talented team, in a weaker league than Parker, yet Parker was a better player. Exum’s body of work is still limited. Embiid has played one season against serious competition but suffered two significant injuries, and there are real questions about whether his body can handle NBA pounding for 82 nights per year. In many drafts, Embiid would be an easy No. 1 choice anyway. In most drafts, Wiggins or Exum would be perfectly fine top selections. But this is not most drafts, because Jabari Parker is available. Take him.

SI Now: Jabari Parker is the best player in the draft
On Thursday's SI Now, SI associate editor Ted Keith and SI NBA producer Matt Dollinger discuss where Jabari Parker might go in the NBA draft and if he's the best player available.
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