Jabari Parker can sound so polite off the court. But there was nothing polite about the way he played against N.C. State Saturday in Duke’s 75-67 ACC tournament semifinal win.
On one dunk, Parker threw down such a vicious tomahawk slam that it is a wonder the ball didn’t deflate. The crowd of 21,533 grew more and more restless as the dunk wasn’t replayed for several minutes on the Greensboro Coliseum scoreboard, sighing with relief and awe when it finally was.
That dunk ultimately changed the game. It was 47-45 when Parker took off. When he put down the landing gear, it was 49-45 and N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried was calling a timeout, trying to calm everyone down.
Didn’t work. Duke quickly ran that four-point lead to 12.
Later, Parker sealed the game by rebounding a missed free throw, going baseline and slamming it home once again. That gave Duke a 10-point lead with 2:21 left and ensured the Blue Devils would advance to Sunday’s ACC final against Virginia.
If there was any doubt Parker would and should be a one-and-done player who is NBA-bound this summer, the past few weeks have erased it. It was Parker’s 19th birthday Saturday, and he was once again a candle burning bright with 20 points and eight rebounds.
I don’t argue the fact that N.C. State’s T.J. Warren was the ACC’s Player of the Year. It is hard to imagine where the Wolfpack would have been without him (and in my mind, N.C. State should edge into the NCAA tournament field because of him).
Parker has a far better supporting cast than Warren, which was demonstrated again Saturday. Duke still has another future NBA player in Rodney Hood to lean on when Parker clicks into passive mode, which happens less and less often these days.
But Parker will ultimately be a better NBA player than Warren, and he’s likely going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. His combination of strength and agility has been evident for years – Sports Illustrated put Parker on its cover in 2012 while he was still in high school – and he has gotten a boost in basketball IQ from coach Mike Krzyzewski this season.
Still, Duke can be a hard team to figure out. The Blue Devils have been tremendous a number of times this season – and then they lost March 5 at Wake Forest. No way that should happen.
Yet here the Blue Devils are again in Greensboro, the place they have so often owned, trying to extend their record with their 20th ACC tournament title in the ACC’s 61-year history of holding this event.
“We dreamed of this from the beginning of the season,” Parker said.
Regardless of what happens Sunday in the game, I see Duke getting a No. 1 or No. 2 seed a few hours later, going to Raleigh for its first two NCAA tournament games next weekend and winning a couple of games there. Beyond that, though, the future is murky.
Whether this is a Duke team that can get to the Final Four depends largely on how Parker plays. He will need to be the best player on the floor in most every NCAA game. The Blue Devils hide their weaknesses well, but they certainly have them.
At 6-8 and 235 pounds, Parker has such a big body that you sometimes forget he is still a teenager. Put it this way. Parker is a year younger than Justin Bieber but a much better role model.
“Jabari’s a guy that people want to be good,” Coach K said, “and there are no jealousies because he’s a good guy.”
Well, there are undoubtedly some jealousies outside the Duke bubble. But that’s the bubble Parker lives inside for a few weeks longer. His stock is so high that he would be foolish not to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft after this season.
In the meantime, Parker will try to win all the championships he can at Duke. He will get just one chance.
“A lot of games aren’t going to be won by me, but by my teammates and they pull through,” Parker said.
It is true that has happened a number of times this season.
But for Duke to get out of March and into early April, when the Final Four is contested at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, it will be Parker who must pull through.