Athletes boasting singular gifts and achievements are apt to command fame, riches, and perhaps a permanent niche in our collective appreciation. Yet, attractive as those rewards may be, they can look quite different from the other side of the equation, as Duke freshman Jabari Parker and coach Mike Krzyzewski reminded us the other night.
Parker started his college career with 13 straight double-figure scoring efforts. The 6-8 forward hit for 20 or more points in his first seven games, dazzling onlookers with his range of polish, skill and talent. Before competing in a conference game, Parker was already mentioned as a national player-of-the-year candidate.
Then Parker struggled in an unexpected Duke loss at Notre Dame last weekend. He scored 7 points on 2 of 10 shooting, had two turnovers and no assists, and looked out of sync. He spent the last few minutes of the contest, when the result hung in the balance, on the bench alongside teammates who may never enjoy a 20-point performance in their entire careers as Blue Devils.
Afterward there was much speculation about what was wrong with Parker, and second-guessing of Krzyzewski for benching him at a crucial time. (Of course when a coach sidelines his best player for failing to perform to certain standards, it does send a powerful message to everyone on the roster.)
The defeat in Duke’s ACC opener was followed by a home win over Georgia Tech in which Parker’s play at both ends of the court was again more uneven than unbelievable. His dozen points came on 12 shots. He had six rebounds. He missed the pair of 3-pointers he attempted. He had two turnovers, four fouls, and a few defensive gaffes. He played only 21 minutes, fewer than Duke’s other starters. In short, he was a contributor among many on a night when five Blue Devils scored in double figures, paced by 27 points from Rodney Hood, Duke’s other offensive pillar.
Following games media members routinely flock to Parker’s seat near the locker room door, crowding out his less-celebrated neighbors. The aftermath of victory over the Yellow Jackets was no exception. This time, though, the questions were more gently challenging.
Not that Parker’s manner or tone varied from previous occasions. Was Parker pressing? The son of Sonny Parker, a former six-year NBA player, spoke evenly of patience, and pleasure at his teammates’ success. Did he need to get to the basket more often to be effective? No, just take opportunities that present themselves and “think the game a little bit better,” he said.
Had Parker ever endured a similar stretch when he was healthy but not playing well?
“Yeah, I’m human too,” the wunderkind said. “I’m going to make mistakes. We won the game, so that’s all I’m happy for. My time will come again, hopefully. But if it doesn’t, as long as we win, as long as I can do other things, that’s my focus.”
Had his early-season performance created unrealistic expectations, led to uncomfortable dissection of his game? “I’ll never let y’all get to me,” Parker said without apparent rancor. “I love the game, and that’s my joy.”
A few minutes later Krzyzewski was asked if he thought it unfortunate that Parker felt compelled to remind listeners he had not descended from Olympus. The response lasted nearly three minutes, long for a postgame press conference.
“It’s unfortunate that the way our game is – men’s college basketball – puts so much on some of these young, extremely talented players to produce at a level they’re not ready to produce at, but they will produce at some time in their life,” said the 39-year college head coach. “Hopefully while they’re here.”
Krzyzewski brought this season’s other prominent phenoms into the discussion – Andrew Wiggins at Kansas, Julius Randle at Kentucky – to make a broader point.
“They’re 18, 19 years old,” he said. “They’ve never played at this level. They’ve never played the physicality (of the college game). They’ve never been as closely scrutinized as everyone is closely scrutinizing them. And they’ve been promoted and marketed way beyond what they should be. But that’s the way it is. And so it’s difficult.”
Expectation can warp perception, Krzyzewski noted. The Chicago Cubs fan, fond of baseball analogies, pointed out that the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter, a model of consistency, doesn’t hit .950. He cited the inevitable imperfections confronted by NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, both of whom played for Krzyzewski on U.S. Olympic squads. “They lose, they play poorly,” the coach said. “But in college basketball, those kids are, like, no, they’re supposed to be instant. It’s not instant. Nothing is instant.”
Krzyzewski also observed that Parker, a presumptive small forward in the pros, was playing a bit out of position in the absence of experienced big men beside him such as last year’s seniors, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. Even so, the Chicago native is the ACC’s No. 3 scorer (19.8-point average) and seventh-best rebounder (7.6). He leads the 12-3 Devils in both categories.
“He’s learning a whole bunch of things,” Krzyzewski said. He couldn’t help adding: “As he’s doing that, we’re still Duke and everyone expects us to be perfect and win everything and look great while we’re doing it. It doesn’t happen that way. This is a work-in-progress, and I have to coach, and I want to coach him that way without putting that extra pressure on him.”
We’ve seen how relentless attention and criticism can drain and sometimes sour youngsters, at least in dealing with public demands.
As a freshman in 1988-89, Duke’s Christian Laettner was a genial locker room presence susceptible to teasing about his then-anemic rebounding. By the time he was an upperclassmen he was often surly and peremptory with interviewers, resentful of intrusions into the team’s sanctum. Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan underwent a similar transformation from open, unaffected freshman in 1993-94 to terse, aloof senior.
And both played before the cloying era of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and more ESPN channels than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream flavors. (Well, almost.)
Then again, Laettner and Duncan grew irritable and alienated over several years. Parker is likely one and done, in which case his college career is nearly half over.
“What’s wrong with him?” Krzyzewski asked rhetorically of the recent bumps in Parker’s idiosyncratic journey across our horizon. “He’s played great this year.”