Jabari Parker, as focused a prep player as any in recent memory, seemed to break character just a bit last Monday, casting somewhat more than a glance in the direction of press row after sinking a late-game fadeaway jumper. Was this his subdued version of a Jordan shrug?
“Nah, that was nothing. I just like looking at the people on the sidelines,” Parker said with a hint of mischief after Simeon’s 81-62 victory over Oak Hill Academy at the Spalding Hoophall Classic. “There are some very beautiful faces over there, so I just look.”
Unlike many of his peers, the No. 2 player in the country has a legitimate comfort level with the media. He speaks evenly and elegantly, mincing no words, while looking reporters in the eye and giving straight answers.
And why shouldn’t he be at ease? After giving a verbal commitment to Duke last month, he no longer has to deal with the constant badgering about his college decision. The left foot he fractured last summer has completely healed, and his conditioning is getting back to where he needs it to be.
Best of all, after struggling in his first few games after admittedly returning too soon from his injury, Parker is back to playing magnificent basketball. Against a perennial national powerhouse last Monday, Chicago’s finest made it look easy en route to a game-high 28 points. If he’s not all the way back – he indicates he’s close – it’s astounding to think how good he’ll be when he gets there.
“I was a little shy (after the injury), but now I’m starting to get it back, to always be on attack,” Parker said. “They used to always say, ‘Slow down.’ I’m trying to get that back, to where my coaches have to say, ‘Slow down.’”
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Oak Hill similarly had no luck putting the brakes on the 6-8 small forward. Parker scored every which way, connecting on an array of fadeaway jumpers and a trio of three-pointers. He demonstrated a deft passing touch, handled the ball fluidly in traffic and blocked two shots. Perhaps most impressively, not for even one play did he remotely appear to coast, punctuating Simeon’s win by beating everyone down the court for a breakaway dunk with under a minute to go.
“You see all the players like Kobe, LeBron, KD, they’re always on attack. They’re always on their feet,” Parker said. “I’m just trying to get like that so I can keep the defender always guessing.”
When Sports Illustrated crowned Parker the best high school player since LeBron James last spring, it couldn’t help but spark debate. Kevin Durant and John Wall, to name a couple, were dominant prep players, and Dwight Howard averaged eight blocked shots per game as a high school senior. Even now, some feel Canadian prodigy Andrew Wiggins of Huntington Prep, blessed with superlative athletic gifts, is a better player than Parker. (Their schools have not faced each other.)
For his part, Parker seems to have little interest in debating his standing among the elite.
“I just need to get back to where I was last year,” Parker said. “I’m not worried about anyone else, because I know what I have to do to be good. And as long as I keep progressing, I’m going to keep challenging myself.”