The hand-wringing and consternation can be heard far from Durham. Apparently, Jabari Parker is slumping.
That may understate the case a bit. Let’s try again.
JABARI PARKER IS SLUMPING!
The two poor games by the Duke superstar freshman – in a surprising road loss at Notre Dame to open ACC play Saturday and Tuesday in a home win over Georgia Tech – seem to have fomented panic in the basketball world, in part because Parker’s transition to the college game was so seamless at first.
And yet this was entirely to be expected. As good as he is, he’s still just a freshman, still just an 18-year-old living on his own for the first time, figuring out college life as he goes. No freshman, basketball star or otherwise, survives that first year of college without a blip or two. As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Tuesday’s win, “He’s still a kid.”
Parker, like his classmates, remains a teenager who is inevitably prone to hitting an icy patch at this time of year, with the first semester of college concluded and the long winter descended, conference play beginning just as bodies and minds are stretched beyond where they’ve ever been before.
Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle are no different. It just took Parker a little longer to catch up. They’re still just kids. Even the transcendent freshmen of recent years most similar to Parker had their weaker moments.
Kevin Durant’s streak of 20-point games to open his career ended with games of 10 and 11 points. He shot worse than 40 percent five times in January and February 2007, including a 4-for-15 night in a loss to Villanova. Carmelo Anthony went almost a month without a 20-point game in January 2003, going 25-for-65 from the floor over a five-game span. They both turned out OK in the end.
The Blue Devils are positioned well offensively to absorb the loss of Parker’s offense for a short period of time, and Rodney Hood has duly responded with a pair of 27-point games, among his best of the season. The bigger question for Duke isn’t Parker but defense, where the Blue Devils’ shortcomings have been repeatedly exposed and Duke ranks 11th in the ACC in defensive efficiency.
It’s become a bit of a trend for Duke, which is surprising given the program is built on the bedrock foundation of aggressive man-to-man defense. It’s no coincidence Duke won the national championship in 2010 at the same time Brian Zoubek emerged as a mistake-erasing rim defender. That’s been missing in the years immediately before and since, and it’s especially glaring this year because the Blue Devils are so loaded elsewhere on the court.
The lack of a post player who can rebound and defend hasn’t just forced Parker and Hood to play out of position in the post; it has exposed weaknesses everywhere. Duke’s original plan was to compensate by using more full-court and extended pressure, but the new officiating emphasis on eliminating contact apparently put those plans on the shelf. Now that officials and players appear to have adjusted, for the most part anyway, it may be something Duke wants to reconsider.
Parker’s game is going to come around, that much is certain. What he’s going through now is the natural consequence of his age and experience. There are other areas that should be more of a concern, because the Blue Devils have a chance to do something special in what is almost certainly Parker’s only year on campus. He’s that good. He just isn’t right now.
Duke can be that good, too. It just isn’t right now.