BY JEREMY WOO
Special to ZAGSBLOG
CHICAGO — The spotlight shone on Jabari Parker, brighter than ever.
Parker returned home to Chicago Tuesday night at the United Center for the biggest game of his young career.
He didn’t disappoint.
In front of over nearly 80 NBA scouts and executives, Parker took the court in a highly touted matchup against Kansas and fellow freshman superstar Andrew Wiggins. Though his Duke Blue Devils fell 94-83, the hometown kid turned in a tremendous performance with 27 points and 9 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Anyone with a sense of basketball purism could tell you the Champions Classic really should have been about the four teams, all ranked in the top five nationally. Michigan State knocked off top-ranked Kentucky in a barnburner just a couple hours earlier. But it wasn’t.
The story was the allure of the future, the romantic projection game that hinges on lottery balls, luck and years of unpredictable player development. On a platform that showcased strong performances from potential number one picks Parker, Wiggins (22 points, 8 rebounds) and Julius Randle (27 points, 13 rebounds against Michigan State), it all comes with the territory.
The three players’ careers have been irrevocably intertwined since their high school days, when the debate between Parker and Randle at No. 1 swiftly ended as Wiggins reclassified and took the top spot in most prospect rankings.
Parker, who broke his foot the summer before his senior year, took time to rehab, gained weight and became the forgotten man in the national conversation. Analysts called him unathletic. The limelight shifted north of the border to Wiggins, whose unreal quickness and hops had scouts salivating.
Was it unfair? Probably. But Tuesday night, fully healthy, all that might have changed.
“[Jabari’s] the number one pick in my eyes,” one NBA assistant coach in attendance told SNY.tv during the game. “Nobody close. Not even Randle.”
“I thought Jabari was unbelievable tonight,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “I thought he played great.”
In the final minutes of the game, it was Wiggins who truly stood out, knocking down a key baseline jumper and punctuating Kansas’ victory with a breakaway dunk on which Parker fouled out. This round went to Wiggins, who tried to ignore but acknowledged the significant pregame hype.
“It was big,” said Wiggins. “I’d seen it all over TV and had tried to block it out. The names on the jerseys don’t say Parker and Wiggins, they say Kansas and Duke. At the end of the day one team’s going to win, not one player. I just tried to give it my all.”
The man-to-man Wiggins-Parker battle never quite materialized, except for a few second-half possessions where Wiggins defended his counterpart. It wasn’t part of either team’s gameplan—Parker squared off with an impressive Perry Ellis much of the night. But Self told a much different story from the soft-spoken Wiggins regarding the matchup.
“I didn’t put [Andrew] on Jabari,” he said. “He just went to guard him. He got a piece of his shot on that possession, and I said, ‘he’s probably right.’ I should have been listening to him the whole game. He’s competitive and definitely wanted the challenge.”
Despite the game’s outcome, it still felt like Parker’s night, his homecoming. Pouring it in from all over the floor, an unreal first half stretch gave him 19 points at the midway mark. Here was an answer for all the questions, all the doubts about his game, in front of the city that raised him.
“You’re in your hometown and playing against Kansas,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Imagine the emotion that you use. [Jabari] wasn’t just worn out at the end because of the way the game was played, I think he was emotioned out. That’s how you grow, and I think he handled everything really well.”
Krzyzewski shied away from comparing Parker to some of his all-time greats—the legendary coach kept his praise simple.
“I’m just glad he’s on my side.” So is the city of Chicago.
Photo: Chicago Tribune