I'm generally the epitome of a casual college basketball fan. Though I grew up watching and rooting for both Wisconsin and Marquette, I left the state for college and since then have never really had a specific team I lived and died with; I figure I do enough of that watching the Bucks, right? So like many people, I generally don't watch full college games with any regularity until the spring when conference tournaments and March Madness kick into high gear.
Of, course this year is different for many of us. The Bucks' struggles paired with the long-standing hype over the 2014 draft class has led me to adopt a new ritual: every night I come home and page through the cable listings under "College Basketball" to see if a Kansas, Duke, Kentucky or Oklahoma State is on. It's not that I watch every game, but I try to DVR all of them and watch as much as I can.
This past weekend offered another chance to see the top prospects in action, with Jabari Parker coming away with top marks after a season-best 29-point, 15-rebound effort in Duke's road blowout win over Boston College. Fellow first overall contenders Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid also came away victorious in Kansas' 83-69 win over West Virginia, though neither dominated individually. Julius Randle was solid in a Kentucky win, while Marcus Smart drew some unfortunate headlines for clashing with a Texas Tech fan as OK State lost for the fifth time in six games.
I didn't have a chance to watch Kentucky or Oklahoma State, but did have time to check out Embiid, Wiggins and Parker. So what did we learn?
Joel Embiid - 17 min, 11 pts, 3/4 fg, 5/8 ft, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 ast, 2 to, 4 fouls
Is Kansas' big man--and likely number one overall pick--embracing a potential future in Milwaukee? A photo posted by Scott Chasen of Kansas blog Rock Chalk Talk after Saturday's game suggests...maybe?
Joel Embiid is wearing a Milwaukee Bucks basketball shirt... Interesting...
— Scott Chasen (@SChasenKU) February 9, 2014
Don't look too excited, Joel.
I asked Chasen if he knew the backstory behind Embiid's wardrobe choice, and apparently it wasn't clear:
@brewhoop really couldn't tell you. Was surprised as I'm sure you guys are. Apparently he's worn it around campus a bit too
— Scott Chasen (@SChasenKU) February 10, 2014
We might speculate that Embiid picked up some Bucks gear from his bud Luc Mbah a Moute over the past couple years, though whatever the reason, it's certainly not bad that Embiid is already wearing Bucks gear. Embrace your destiny, big fella.
Of course, all of that is just fun window-dressing to a far more important question: is Embiid the guy from this year's draft class? That's certainly the direction the draft "consensus" is moving, as both ESPN's Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress have moved Embiid to the top of their respective mock drafts in recent weeks. And conveniently, Saturday's game was a bit of a microcosm of Embiid's season so far. He was barely visible in a foul-plagued first half, but got on track after the intermission as the Mountaineers simply had no way to contain Embiid's combination of size and skill down the stretch. Despite playing just 17 minutes and taking only four shots, Embiid still finished with a double-double and three blocks, underscoring both the good (SIZE, footwork, general two-way impact) and bad (foul trouble, decision-making) we already knew about him.
Embiid already looks way too big and talented not to be an impact player in the NBA, though even his strongest supporters believe it will take a few years before he can reach his considerable potential. While he doesn't have the sort of physical strength and explosiveness of a pre-injury Greg Oden, he's nimble and skilled in a way that 250-pound seven-footers simply shouldn't be. Guys who just started playing the game competitively a couple years ago also don't move their feet or pass out of double-teams like Embiid, and his shooting form and jump-hooks already suggest a player who could one day deliver 20 points a night in the NBA.
What differentiates Embiid from Parker and Wiggins is that he also has the size and physical gifts to dominate defensively in ways that smaller players simply can't. He already blocks a ton of shots and has the quick feet needed to play modern NBA defense, and he should be at least a solid rebounder as he increases his core strength. As far as comps go, I see a lot of pre-injury Andrew Bynum and a fair bit of Roy Hibbert, two guys who have never been athletic per se, but made up for it with massive frames, good feet and a high skill-level.
Andrew Wiggins - 38 min, 19 pts, 6/14 fg, 7/10 ft, 0/3 threes, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, 3 turnovers
Ironically, much of Embiid's increasing hype has come at the expense of his more highly-recruited teammate, though Wiggins has also made clear strides as the season has gone on. Saturday night saw Wiggins more aggressively hunting for shots at the basket, a trend we've seen over the past month and something we've been clamoring for him to do all season.
The results were largely positive--a couple big dunks and 10 free throw attempts are positive signs--though I still see Wiggins' shot-creating and finishing abilities as his biggest hurdles to NBA superstardom. While we know that Wiggins is an elite athlete, I've found myself a bit let down by how sporadically he's imposed himself physically over the course of the season. It's popular to blame Wiggins' inconsistency on his unassuming manner or Kansas' guard play, but I think his slender frame and lack of advanced ball-handling are even bigger concerns than whatever "alpha dog" mentality he may lack. Though his fluidity and skill in the open court is often irresistible, Wiggins has struck me as more of a straight-line driver who struggles to finish through contact in the half court. His 56% true shooting number is certainly respectable, but it's weighed down by the fact that he shoots a rather pedestrian 34.5% on 2-point jumpers and 58.2% at the rim. And while his man defense has been encouraging, he's been a fairly conservative defender who doesn't make as many plays as you'd expect (1.0 spg, 0.8 bpg). The history of the NBA is littered with guys who could hit threes and look great dunking in an empty gym, but those two skills alone don't make you a star. Gerald Green might be the best example, though there are a ton of wings past and present who also fall into that category.
The good news is that Wiggins already has small forward length and will certainly get stronger in the next couple years, plus at 18 he has plenty of room for skill development as well. But is he ever going to be a Paul George-type two-way dynamo? A guy who can efficiently score off the dribble, punish teams from three, create open shots for teammates and finish at the rim? Possibly, sure. He's shown himself to be a willing passer if not a great playmaker at Kansas, and he has a nice, repeatable form which make his good shooting numbers unsurprising (37% on 3.4 three point attempt per game). Add to that his excellent lateral quickness, and you have a guy whose floor seems to be rather high. He'll presumably hit threes, flourish in the open court, play well in a team system, and be able to defend both wing spots at the NBA level.
That would only be disappointing if you're demanding he become a superstar, but unfortunately that's the cross he's come to bear. It was never fair, but this was supposed to be the Andrew Wiggins draft, and the fact that it's become a wide-open race is often used more as an indictment of Wiggins than a credit to how good Embiid and Parker has been.
And strange as it may be, the Wiggins backlash might be the best thing for him in the long term. Going second or third might be the best way to let him become the best version of the real Andrew Wiggins, not the guy that fans and scouts extrapolated into a Canadian LeBron-Jordan-Vince Carter hybrid two years ago. He's not that guy, and he never was. But the actual Andrew Wiggins should still be really good--and possibly great.
Jabari Parker vs. BC: 29 pts, 12/19 fg, 0/1 threes, 5/10 ft, 15 rebs, 3 blk, 1 ast, 2 to
While scouts had warned even before the season that Wiggins was unlikely to dominate as a freshman, Parker never really had anyone making the same sorts of excuses. Though less athletic, he was more physically mature than Wiggins, and paired with an advanced offensive arsenal that meant he was always supposed to be putting up numbers.
Seven 20-plus point games to start his college career did nothing to derail that narrative, though the weird irony is that it also may have set the bar unfairly high for the rest of the season. Watching him struggle through the start of Duke's ACC schedule had some wondering if his game perhaps wasn't as fully-baked as the early season hype had suggested, though some perspective was probably important: he's still just an 18-year-old kid carrying one of the country's best programs while playing the vast majority of his minutes as a 6'8" center.
Thankfully, Parker has bounced back from a tough start to the new year with a renewed aggressiveness that has paid obvious dividends for both Duke and his own stock. Though he's shown the ability to hit threes all season (37% from deep), he's attempted only one three-pointer in four of his last five games, instead focusing on bullying opponents off the dribble and in the paint with his unstoppable combination of size and skill. He'll need a better balance of inside and out at the next level, but for now there's no reason for him not to use his size against mostly overwhelmed college defenders.
Boston College saw that first hand on Saturday night, as Parker abused smaller defenders time and again. He scored with ease from the post, off face ups, from offensive rebounds, and on the break, looking like a man among boys as Danny Ainge (among others) watched courtside. Aside from a wayward shooting night from the foul line, the whole game felt like something of a Parker highlight reel.
Saturday's performance did nothing to curb comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, who was similarly dominant in his lone season at Syracuse. But it also occurred to me that Parker bears more than a passing resemblance to Tobias Harris, another thick and skilled college power forward who became a combo forward at the next level. Think about it: both guys were high school All-American who came to college with plenty of strength and skill. Both also were more powerful than explosive, guys who could make "wow!" plays on the move even if they lacked the jump-out-of-the-gym verticality and grace of someone like Wiggins.
Now before you have another Tobias-trade-induced aneurysm, let me be clear that I see Parker as a higher ceiling guy than Tobias. While Tobias is unquestionably skilled and savvy beyond his years as a shot-creator and scorer, Jabari already looks like a better shooter, and his handle and playmaking skills are on another level from where Tobias was as a college freshman. That's no dig on Tobes; Parker is just that good.
But Parker also brings some of the same concerns that Tobias brought. Though he's rebounded well and blocked his share of shots this season, he doesn't have the length you'd ideally want in a power forward, nor is he the compact, fluid athlete you tend to see locking down NBA wings. Similar concerns didn't prevent Anthony from developing into a dominant scorer and automatic all-star regardless of where he's played, which is the example most Parker optimists point to when defending his pro potential. Harris also put up big numbers as a small-ball PF in Orlando last year, though he's bounced between the forward positions this year without really settling into the same groove (an early season ankle injury is part of the story as well).
Parker figures to end up somewhere between the two eventually, though that leaves a fair bit of real estate for interpretation. Parker's diverse offensive skills--and just as importantly, his willingness to use them--make him the most obvious candidate from this year's draft class to be an NBA go-to scorer in the near term. So he feels like a very safe pick in that sense, but also a much more difficult guy to project defensively. That's partially because he looks like a defensive tweener, and partially because he's been required to defend on the perimeter so rarely this season that we just don't have much data to think otherwise.
At this point I'd probably be afraid to take Parker ahead of Embiid--but not to the point that I'd go cry in the shower with a pint of rocky road if the Bucks went that direction in June. I feel like I'm probably more of a "Parker guy" than many, even if I don't see him as clearly ahead of either of his Kansas rivals. He's just a different type of player--one who will almost certainly be terrific on one end, but possibly a liability on the other. So how you feel about him vs. the other guys is not just a matter of how good you think he'll be, but also how valuable that type of player is compared to a more well-rounded wing or two-way center.
Who's your number one? Vote in our poll below and give us your take in the comments!