Like life, sports can be fickle. Heroes today can be zeroes the next and vice versa. Jabari Parker knows this firsthand. Currently, the Duke star is mired in a slump of epic proportions.
Apparently, he left his silky, smooth jumper in 2013. It’s also coincided with the beginning of ACC play. About 21 months ago, Parker was being called the best prospect since LeBron by Sports Illustrated.
The attention dried up once Andrew Wiggins re-classified to the Class of 2013. Merely a week after "LeBron" Jameis Winston capped off the most successful (redshirt) freshman season in college football history, scouts are looking around at the college basketball landscape and realizing that there is no comparable transcendent talent on the hoops scene. However, it's not devoid of talent.
Once Wiggins graced a collegiate floor for the first time, it became obvious he was still an egg rife with unhatched potential. Parker was the one laying golden eggs into the basket and garnering Carmelo and Durant comparisons.
In his last six games though, Parker has been shattering the rim with his bricks. Kentucky tweener Julius Randle has cooled down since he sprinted ahead of the pack in the race to be the No. 1 overall pick. Anthony Bennett’s not doing tweeners any favors though.
Parker has been averaging a cool nine points a game, shooting 35 percent from the field and riding the pine in the final seconds of a 79-77 loss to Notre Dame. Freshman slump around this time of year. What’s been unexpected has been his draft stock losing traction while another fellow freshman's unexpectedly rises.
In mock drafts and on the tongues of scouts he’s suddenly losing buzz to a Kansas freshman who is playing the best basketball of his life.
Wiggins leads the Jayhawks in points and rebounds, but 7-foot, 250 pound freshman teammate Joel Embiid is transforming into a future NBA superstar before our eyes.
Not only does Kansas’ seven-foot center from Cameroon reject shots in his vicinity, but he’s also rising up and volleyball spiking the draft rankings of his peers.
Thirty-six months ago, Embiid was a footballer and volleyball athlete playing with orange leather on an organized team for the first time. Today, he’s receiving a healthy amount of Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons. The similarities beyond their common geographical origins as Embiid gives old school hoop heads goose bumps with his moves on the court .
Olajuwon, a Nigerian soccer player who outgrew the pitch redshirted his freshman season at the University of Houston. As a freshman, he averaged just 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds a game and 2.5 blocks. Thirty years ago, Olajuwon was selected first overall ahead of Sam Bowie and a lithe UNC junior guard named Michael Jordan. In hindsight, that last factoid should also serve as a bit of a calming reminder for Wiggins and Parker.
Embiid is ahead of the curve. Is he the best big man from the African continent since Olajuwon? We’ve already been through this premature anointment with Wiggins and Parker, so I won’t crown Embiid too soon. Besides, I don't need Dikembe Mutumbo knocking down my door and disapprovingly wagging his finger in my face for committing blasphemy.
After Parker watched helplessly as Rasheed Sulaimon continued his emergence as Duke’s top playmaker in a tight Monday night win over unranked Virginia, Wiggins and Embiid put on a showcase in a victory over No. 8 Iowa State. Wiggins succinctly achieved a 17 point, 19 rebound double-double.
Embiid's long gait, agility and timing on the defensive end has Kansas rising back up the national rankings. Unlike Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden, he doesn’t lumber up the floor like Peyton Manning outside the pocket. He flies. Watch the best centers in the NBA, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins run, leap, pivot and then walk before the game. They move like normal people.
However, watching his natural, smooth running motion, post skillset, and offensive awareness, I can at least guarantee you he’s not Hasheem Thabeet. He's too tall to be tempted into drifting away from the hoop like Serge Ibaka. Watching him reel in entry pass after entry pass against Iowa State, then spin baseline, to flush it home, use backboard to lay in an easy two or patiently wait for movement or the double team, then whip the fastball to a swingman in the corner was special to watch.
His 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in 21 minutes a night is just the beginning. At a time when conference play brings tougher play, Embiid is raising his game.
However, Embiid is slowly fitting the mold of a potential franchise center.
I disagree with the prevailing notion that the 2014 Draft class is suddenly looking overrated. Wiggins, Parker, Embiid and Marcus Smart could all become as productive on the next level as Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Anthony Davis. But it’s impossible to compare a chicken to an egg.
Like this column, the season’s narrative has shifted from the Parker vs. Wiggins storyline to a surprising development. Nights like Monday’s 16 point, nine boards and five block performance will become more commonplace.
Initially, I was of the mindset that the 2014 class would create a few scoring champs, but the NBA Draft class of 2015 would produce a new generation of centers. NBA title contenders are usually built around towering All-Star post-up centers. They come in short supply, but the upcoming crop of freshman is potentially brimming with postmen like Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner, Cliff Alexander and the versatile Karl Towns.
The elite class of freshmen currently dominating the college hoops conversation won’t be around to witness the fleet of frontcourt stars flooding college hoops.
Things are different at Kansas though. Embiid was supposed to be a part of that draft class after returning for his sophomore campaign.
Before last season, Bill Self was asked about the 10 incoming freshman on Kansas' roster including Perry Ellis and Ben McClemore.
“This year will be stressful in a lot of ways, because as Al McGuire said, ‘The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores,’” Self snarkily responded.
For Embiid, that’s not in the stars anymore.