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College Basketball Can't Handle Jabari Parker

Just five games into his college career, it's already frighteningly obvious that Duke freshman Jabari Parker is different from you, me, his teammates, his opponents, and every other college player in the country.

He's different for a couple of reasons, none more obvious than the fact that he is a grown-ass man. At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, Parker is every bit as big as LeBron James was out of high school, every bit as big as Carmelo Anthony is now. He doesn't belong here, in college, playing against teenagers. That alone doesn't make him unique. After all, other star players like freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle and sophomore point guard Marcus Smart are grown-ass men, too. But no one, right now, is doing more with what they were given than Parker.


He's averaging over 22 points a game, and is the only Blue Devil under head coach Mike Krzyzewski to score 20 in each of his first five career games. He's pulling down nearly nine boards a contest. Just last night against East Carolina University, he had six blocks. He's creating baskets for others. On the year, he's shooting 65 percent—sixty-five percent—from behind the arc. And as impressive as the stats are, even they don't really give an accurate impression of Parker's ability, of his influence on virtually every single possession. For that, you have to watch him.

Eight days ago, in just his second game as a Blue Devil, Parker played Andrew Wiggins and Kansas. Duke lost. Parker lost. But when the second half clock ran out, there was no doubt who the best player on the floor had been. There were flashes, like when Parker was tasked with guarding the human pogo stick on bath salts that is Wiggins on one possession and then sent into the paint to check 7-foot center Joel Embiid on another. There were the points in the paint, and the four three-pointers, including the one he drained from the top of the key just as he got slapped on the elbow. You knew he was feeling it, then. There was that layup, and of course, that oop. There was the scary realization that even though Parker could, and probably did, blow and bull past anyone at anytime throughout his entire youth career, he had the patience and ability and know-how to manipulate defenders with his pivot, to create separation for a three or midrange gimme without putting the ball on floor.


Usually, dominant is used as a synonym for "good"; Parker is dominant in a more literal sense. He's running the show, and nobody is getting in his way. He often brings the ball up the court like the team's de-facto point guard, he's big and strong enough to play the four or the five, and he routinely does things like this, which you can't even really explain:

Parker's length and strength here forced power forward Brandan Smith into a bad shot. Parker then got the rebound directly beneath his own basket, initiated a 1-on-motherfucking-5 fast break, crossed over to his right hand just over mid-court, took one more dribble, then elevated for the slam.


This is nonsense. This is why people, searching for a similar player, compare Parker to Carmelo Anthony, to Kevin Durant, to LeBron James. Men this big and this young aren't supposed to be this agile, this good, this dominant. But more than any comparisons to this trio are the similarities Parker is drawing to Grant Hill.

College basketball (like all college sports, really) is transient, fleeting in nature. The rosters change every year; entire starting lineups graduate. The goal is always to win right now, this year. So coaches use an ideological and tactical vice grip on their teams: a system. They try to inject their own philosophy and knowledge into a team more than their counterparts in the pros do because it gives their school the best chance at winning, regardless of the talent available to them. This is how you end up with schools that are known for their systems more than their alumni. Syracuse is synonymous with zone defense, Pitino's Louisville teams are defined by the full-court press, and Georgetown isn't Georgetown without the Princeton offense.


These systems work, partly, because there are very few players who are good enough to force the coaches who deploy them to adapt, either from within or without. College players are groomed to fit neatly within these parameters, not to break them. Jabari Parker doesn't play by those rules.

Duke uses a basic motion offense. Basically, perimeter players move and set screens to create 1-on-1 matchups for the big men down low, who can then turn to the bucket or kick passes out for open threes. It's simple, but nearly unstoppable, and Duke recruits to the system. Coach K runs his squads tightly even by the standards of the coach-as-brand, with the players serving mainly as highly specialized, ultimately interchangeable parts in a smooth-running engine of his design. There have been plenty who stood out—Redick, Brand, Boozer, Maggette, Dunleavy, Deng, McRoberts, Williams, Laettner—but they excelled within the system, while Coach K still held the reins. It's why Duke teams are annually great, and why they're annually dull.


Parker is different. Simply put, he's a Ferrari. He's too big, too strong, too skilled, too smart, too athletic, and too accurate to be contained solely within the motion offense. He's unique because he can play in the NBA right now, today. He's almost a complete package, and can succeed beyond the confines of Duke's motion offense. And he's so good, so dominant, that Coach K can't help but set him loose.

Free to wander off the leash when he wants, Parker is absolutely lighting up the stat sheet, which is why people compare him to Grant Hill. Like Parker, Hill was a mobile forward who could score and create and defend multiple positions. Hill was great at Duke, transcendent even. And while Hill set the bar of what a big, versatile wing could do in Coach K's offense, even he didn't freestyle nearly as much as Parker. Blue Devils don't get the reins. They don't push 1-on-5 fast breaks 94 feet. They don't attempt double-clutch, over-the-shoulder layups between three defenders. And that's because, generally, they shouldn't.


Through five games, though, Parker looks the first Blue Devil in decades to have the kind of imagination and talent to go off-script and succeed. This is a true freshman we're talking about—an 18-year-old—who's working, apparently, under no kind of restraints, and succeeding. Coach K presumably sees what everyone else does: this guy is different.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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