If this isn’t how Jabari Parker wants his college career to end — breaking down in tears, trying to explain the unexplainable — then he does have an option. He can stay in college. He can defy the one-and-done expectation, remain at Duke for his sophomore season, tell the NBA and the agents and the TV networks and the shoe companies that they can wait until he’s good and ready.
Does he realize what a glorious statement that would be, rejectng immediate millions and saying yes to one more year of the college experience?
“Incompletion,’’ he told ESPN when asked to reflect on his Duke career, after the stunning loss to Mercer in his first and maybe only NCAA tournament game.
Is it possible such a bitter disappointment will impact his decision on whether to enter the NBA draft, where he could be the No. 1 pick? “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ he said, adding that he “didn’t care about the rankings’’ of draft projections.
Then just say no and head to the student union for a burger. There is no set mandate that a gifted basketball player must turn pro simply because he might be drafted first. It’s clear Parker’s game and confidence level need work, dogged as he was by 4-of-14 shooting, four turnovers and four personal fouls while continuing to have well-scrutinized defensive issues against a Mercer team showing no mercy. If he looked like a polished NBA product only two weeks ago against North Carolina, he since has faded into a funk, perhaps feeling the burden of trying to lead Duke at least into the Final Four. He has lived with that weight since he was receiving scholarship offers in the sixth grade, recalling how Sports Illustrated plunged unfairly into the dastardly game it plays with ESPN The Magazine — sensationalize a teenager with a eyeball-grabbing cover headline — by calling him the best player since LeBron James. The best player since LeBron James is Kevin Durant, right? About a dozen other post-LeBron standouts come to mind, right? Yet that didn’t stop the ridiculous hype for Parker and Andrew Wiggins, who avoided his own second-round exit as he and Kansas fended off Eastern Kentucky.
Just the day before, Parker had spoken about winning a national title. “The only way you can leave a legacy and you can leave behind memories is by winning a championship,” he said. “I know we just came up short (in the ACC tournament). I’ve got to try to do something big now.’’ Has to do something big now? He has been hearing, no doubt, the comparisons to Carmelo Anthony in terms of their offensive machinery and identical 6-8, 235-pound frames. Mike Krzyzewski, his coach, tried to temper the link before the Mercer game.
“Jabari’s going to be an outstanding pro, but he’s right now in the process of development,’’ he said. “To compare the two now, there is no comparison. But in three, four, five years, Jabari, I think, will be a franchise player. He’ll be a 25-points-a-game scorer in the NBA. But he’s still developing.’’
After the Mercer game, we realize that. “We put pressure on ourselves,” Parker said before his tear ducts exploded. “Got to be a man about it. I’ve got to take the responsibility.’’
The most responsible decision he could make would be to stay. I could think of no worse fate than Parker turning pro, being drafted by the god-awful Philadelphia 76ers and being expected to lead that franchise to the promised land in an overly demanding sports town. Just 19, he surely would struggle at times in his rookie season, whereas another season at Duke under Krzyzewski would better prepare him for the NBA — and give him a chance to redeem himself in March. That also would be a gift to Coach K, who now must be wondering, after two first-game NCAA tournament exits in three years, what’s ahead in a magnificent career where he has accomplished almost everything. He had a health scare earlier this month, not the first time, and maybe the best plan is to coach two more seasons at Duke, coach the U.S. Olympic team to a third gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and retire. It wasn’t his best coaching performance this season, with his players lagging defensively and lapsing on fundamentals. Is it time for to wonder if Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, one of his many protegees, is the best man to replace him?
Dignified as always, Krzyzewski visited the Mercer locker room to congratulate the Bears, who want to be the next Florida Gulf Coast. “If we had to be beaten,” Krzyzewski told them, “I’m glad we got beat by a hell of a basketball team.’’
Soon enough, he will be visiting another young man to discuss the future. If he tells Jabari Parker to follow his heart, that artery will lead him back to Durham.