It’s funny how many five-star, blue-chip basketball players over the past 11 years said they signed with their respective colleges to Carmelo-ize the school, i.e. win the national championship as a freshman.
It’s a glorious picture, the highly touted freshman who experienced his share of growing pains turning into a monstrous pro prospect during the NCAA Tournament and leading his team to the national championship before becoming a top-five pick in the NBA draft.
Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins carried visions of Carmelo-izing their schools but both, along with Wiggins’s teammate Joel Embiid and Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis are out of the NCAA Tournament.
Following Stanford’s 60-57 win Sunday over Kansas, a game in which Wiggins, considered a can’t-miss NBA prospect, scored 4 points on 1-for-6 shooting, there was a collective panic on Twitter about Wiggins’s ability to compete in the NBA. If the consensus most-athletic player in the NCAA couldn’t score more than 4 points against a team that finished in a five-way tie for third in the Pac-12, then what is he going to do against LeBron James or Paul George?
And if Parker is getting pulled late for defense against Atlantic Sun champion Mercer, which lost by 20 to Tennessee in the third round, who is he going to defend at the next level?
Both are legitimate concerns and astute questions, but neither player will fall in the NBA draft because of their tournament performance. Wiggins and Parker have been examined and scrutinized by scouts for the past five years, every move evaluated, every weakness noted, every strength lauded. So scouts know Wiggins has a tendency of disappearing in games and needs to increase his motor. They know Parker has played center most of the season because Duke — for the umpteenth year — lacked a true impact center, so, the 6-foot-8-inch Parker played the position. They also know he may lack the athleticism to defend shooting guards.
The Celtics are expected to have at least a top-six pick and have evaluated these prospects and will have to consider these players. Their tournament performances should have little to do with the Celtics’ decision. That would be an overreaction.
Parker is the same player who looked as if he was the best in the ACC for most of the season and Wiggins did drop 41 on West Virginia two weeks ago. What their performances do tell us is they are far from finished products.
To expect Wiggins, Parker, or Ennis to make a major impact in their first NBA season is unrealistic. There have been comparisons of this draft class with the Class of 2003, which included four players — James (No. 1), Carmelo Anthony (No. 3), Chris Bosh (No. 4), and Dwyane Wade (No. 5) — that made significant impacts with their teams.
What these tournament performances tell us is to take a step back from tabbing these players as being immediate franchise caliber. It means they have weaknesses, they need time to develop, and — sit down as you hear this — they may not even start as a rookie.
This reporter covered Kobe Bryant’s first professional game, a Long Beach Summer League contest against the Detroit Pistons in July 1996. There was little known about Bryant besides being an athletic freak and the son of a former NBA player.
Bryant needed time. He started seven total games in his first two NBA seasons. Seven. The most vivid memory from his rookie season is Bryant launching two airballs in the waning minutes of a 98-93 Game 5 loss to the Utah Jazz that ended the Western Conference semifinals.
Shaquille O’Neal and Nick Van Exel glared at Bryant for his arrogance in taking those shots and he finished 12 for 38 (31.6 percent) for the series. He needed development and experience and because he entered the draft at such a young age (17) without the college canvas to make mistakes, he made the errors on the grandest stage before becoming an all-time great.
The same situation applies to Parker and Wiggins. With so many players entering the draft following their freshman seasons, the days of the polished rookie are dying. Portland’s Damian Lillard was a fourth-year junior when he was taken sixth by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012. Blake Griffin won the Rookie of the Year in 2011 when he was four years removed from high school.
So consider their tournament-performances part of the process: Wiggins likely would have more than 4 points in the final game of his junior year and Parker would likely work a couple of summers on his defense in Durham should he stay at Duke. But that’s not likely going to happen.
Both are probably gone and they’ll take their strengths — and weaknesses — with them. Not many remember Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo playing Kevin Durant at shooting guard during his rookie season because he was too frail to defend small forwards or Kobe coming off the bench because the Lakers already had Eddie Jones.
That’s part of the development stage. Parker and Wiggins didn’t Carmelo-ize their schools and they won’t dominate the NBA the minute they arrive in training camp. But their finished products will be thrilling to watch and fruitful for the NBA teams fortunate enough to draft them.
Until then, we have to grind through the growth process as we did with most of our NBA superstars, though those times were overshadowed by their eventual greatness.