Jabari Parker, as focused a prep player as any in recent memory, seemed to break character just a bit last Monday, casting somewhat more than a glance in the direction of press row after sinking a late-game fadeaway jumper. Was this his subdued version of a Jordan shrug?
“Nah, that was nothing. I just like looking at the people on the sidelines,” Parker said with a hint of mischief after Simeon’s 81-62 victory over Oak Hill Academy at the Spalding Hoophall Classic. “There are some very beautiful faces over there, so I just look.”
Unlike many of his peers, the No. 2 player in the country has a legitimate comfort level with the media. He speaks evenly and elegantly, mincing no words, while looking reporters in the eye and giving straight answers.
And why shouldn’t he be at ease? After giving a verbal commitment to Duke last month, he no longer has to deal with the constant badgering about his college decision. The left foot he fractured last summer has completely healed, and his conditioning is getting back to where he needs it to be.
Best of all, after struggling in his first few games after admittedly returning too soon from his injury, Parker is back to playing magnificent basketball. Against a perennial national powerhouse last Monday, Chicago’s finest made it look easy en route to a game-high 28 points. If he’s not all the way back â€“ he indicates he’s close â€“ it’s astounding to think how good he’ll be when he gets there.
“I was a little shy (after the injury), but now I’m starting to get it back, to always be on attack,” Parker said. “They used to always say, ‘Slow down.’ I’m trying to get that back, to where my coaches have to say, ‘Slow down.'”
[RELATED: It’s Official – Jabari Parker Chooses Duke]
Oak Hill similarly had no luck putting the brakes on the 6-8 small forward. Parker scored every which way, connecting on an array of fadeaway jumpers and a trio of three-pointers. He demonstrated a deft passing touch, handled the ball fluidly in traffic and blocked two shots. Perhaps most impressively, not for even one play did he remotely appear to coast, punctuating Simeon’s win by beating everyone down the court for a breakaway dunk with under a minute to go.
“You see all the players like Kobe, LeBron, KD, they’re always on attack. They’re always on their feet,” Parker said. “I’m just trying to get like that so I can keep the defender always guessing.”
When Sports Illustrated crowned Parker the best high school player since LeBron James last spring, it couldn’t help but spark debate. Kevin Durant and John Wall, to name a couple, were dominant prep players, and Dwight Howard averaged eight blocked shots per game as a high school senior. Even now, some feel Canadian prodigy Andrew Wiggins of Huntington Prep, blessed with superlative athletic gifts, is a better player than Parker. (Their schools have not faced each other.)
For his part, Parker seems to have little interest in debating his standing among the elite.
“I just need to get back to where I was last year,” Parker said. “I’m not worried about anyone else, because I know what I have to do to be good. And as long as I keep progressing, I’m going to keep challenging myself.”
Besides, to scrutinize what Parker isn’t does little justice to the superb player that he is. Though he doesn’t have transcendent athleticism, Parker is no slouch in that department, and he possesses polish and poise well beyond his 17 years. If his game had a soundtrack, it would be fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco; Jabari is innovative and creative, but he moves flawlessly within the rhythm of the game, offsetting his smoothness with lethal punchlines.
And there are so many unique layers to Jabari aside from the sport he happens to excel at. It’s been well documented how deeply involved he is with his Mormon faith. He primarily credits God for pushing him to rehab his foot injury twice as hard as he otherwise would have, and he factored heavily in his recruitment finding an environment conducive to continuing his religious studies.
There’s also his status as the latest Great Chicago Hope. Parker is honored to carry on the legacy of former Simeon star Benji Wilson, the No. 1 player in the country in 1984, who was shot and killed the day before his senior season. (Parker appeared in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on Wilson, and he was the driving force for Simeon to stitch Wilson’s No. 25 into their sneakers.)
Parker is keenly aware of the ever-present violence in his hometown that claimed Wilson and perpetuates today. It deeply troubled him when a teenage boy was gunned down outside one of Simeon’s games. And at least in one regard, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of a certain U.S. president who calls Chicago his hometown.
“For me, it was emotional to see my city go down with such turmoil, and to see everybody worry about getting home safe,” Parker said. “But then again, I have to do my job. If I so happen to make it one day, I want to be a community activist, just trying to get these kids off the street.”
Of course, there’s the next stop on his journey, as he prepares to carve out his own niche in Duke basketball lore. Interestingly, he’s described his recruiting trip to Durham as the least fun he had on any official visit, which makes sense: It’s hard to imagine Coach K presiding over anything reminiscent of that one scene in He Got Game. Yet, true to form, Parker chose substance over sizzle.
“I think everything was necessary, even though I didn’t understand it at the time,” Parker said of his visit. “I saw the campus — it’s pretty nice, they have great resources. Also, the coaching staff, they’re always on point, they’re working 24/7 to see what you want to do. And I want to just win.
“At Duke, they’re always going to the tournament, so they’re just going to give you the opportunity. You just have to handle the rest on your own.”
Parker will arrive at Cameron Indoor Stadium next fall with a nearly unmatched prep pedigree, but his plan is to “listen twice as much as I talk,” and he figures everything will likely take care of itself. But for now, he’s just living in the moment; even for someone picking up speed rapidly, there’s nothing wrong with slowing things down once in a while.
“I’m focused on what I need to get better at, and just being around (my teammates),” Parker said. “I’m a senior … this is not going to happen again. I just have to enjoy the process.”
Is Parker the real deal?
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