Hype, I don’t mind. Overhype? It’s insulting to the intelligence. And if it’s overhype for the purpose of driving a megabillion-dollar machine for sneaker companies and TV networks, then it can be unfair and destructive. If Andrew Wiggins is the best basketball player since LeBron James and Jabari Parker is the best basketball player since LeBron James — as both are being called in the mass media — then which one is and which one isn’t? Both can’t be.
And perhaps I’ve missed the impact of Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and others, but when I hear such magnificent proclamations about kids who barely are 18, I’m left to wonder if it’s all done in the name of BLITZ-PROMOTING COLLEGE BASKETBALL IN THE MIDDLE OF NOVEMBER SO ESPN CAN DELIVER A BIG RATINGS NUMBER ON A MIDWEEK NIGHT WHEN THE NFL IS OFF!!!!!!!!
But I will say this: For all the suffocating attention irresponsibly tossed their way, Wiggins and Parker are handling it quite well, if one very impressive night in Chicago is a future indicator. Born 20 days apart in 1995 — about when Michael Jordan was returning to the NBA and ready to launch his second three-peat — the hypemonsters were juxtaposed against each other in the very arena Jordan built on the west side. With a national TV audience basically seeing them for the first time, they were damned good.
Wiggins, who already has removed his shirt for a GQ story and was mentioned in 62,000 tweets last month, somehow justified the ballyhoo in his national coming-out party. His two signature shots — first a jumper to give Kansas an 85-81 lead with 1:33 left, then a thundering, celebratory dunk as Parker fouled him (and fouled out) — was part of his 16-point second-half rumble that pushed the Jayhawks past Duke. Parker, closely tied to his Mormon upbringing and a more measued approach to basketball and life, was just as good in defeat: 27 points, nine rebounds, two steals … and zero hints of pressure in returning to his hometown.
“Big players make big plays,” Wiggins said, per the Associated Press. “I think our whole team, whoever was on the court, every possession we made a big play. That’s why we came out on top.”
“They just wanted it more,” Parker said. “They outplayed us in the second half. Me, I need to get just a little bit more experience. I’ve got a long way to go.”
For mid-November, it was a rousing game that didn’t necessarily lay seeds for “the next LeBron.” But it didn’t shout down the idea, either. Yes, this seemed like the future, and it was why NBA scouts filled the building for the doubleheader, knowing Wiggins, Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, several Kentucky freshmen and a couple of Michigan State upperclassmen — yes, they still exist — will be the stars of June’s talent-swelled draft. In the first game, Kentucky’s kids, described by the hype machine as an all-time recruiting class loaded with lottery picks, started slowly against Michigan State, confirming coach John Calipari’s woe-is-me pregame remarks that they weren’t prepared for an experienced title contender. MSU coach Tom Izzo responded, wryly, that Calipari should “forfeit.” Izzo’s “old men” did allow Kentucky to rally but survived for a 78-74 win. The Spartans, cheered on by Magic Johnson, will be the new No. 1.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” said Keith Appling, a real live senior. “Not the beginning.”
The LeBron comparisons are dangerous, of course. Wiggins also has been compared to Wilt Chamberlain, which is doubly absurd. In his native Canada, they call him Maple Jordan. It was encouraging to see him him respond with a free-and-easy national debut. “Andrew will learn to roll with it,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has other ultra-skilled freshmen. “That goes with the territory. All the great ones have to deal with that. (The comparisons) are very unfair. He’s not LeBron. And he’s not Durant. And he’s not Wilt. He’s Andrew. And Andrew will impact our game and our college program in a huge, huge, huge way without question. But to compare him to people who his game doesn’t resemble at all, I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
Said Wiggins: “The hype, it was big. I just tried to block it out. The names on jerseys don’t say Parker and Wiggins, it says Kansas and Duke. At the end of the day, it’s not one player that’s going to win, it’s one team.”
All of which is an awkward byproduct of one-and-doneism, the NBA age restriction that forbids a player from entering the draft until he’s at least 19 and one year beyond high school. It is, undeniably, a sham, making a mockery of higher academia and giivng the NBA a free one-year publicity machine for its next stars. “You feel a little bad for everyone who comes in nowadays and just wants to leave as soon as they get there,” said Ohio State star Aaron Craft, a senior, per USA Today. “College has been phenomenal to me. I have absolutely no regrets in my time at Ohio State, and I wish I could stay longer. I just hope these kids, these freshmen can come in and enjoy the college experience. It’s like nothing else.”
In theory, he’s right. But for one night, the big machine didn’t seem disproportionate to reality. Strip away the hype, and the talent was promising, entertaining, breathtaking and, I dare say, epic.