DURHAM, N.C. — In just 280 days, the verve around Duke’s basketball program has dramatically changed.
The Blue Devils have gone from the utter embarrassment of a shocking loss to Lehigh in their opening game of the NCAA tournament last March to reaching the No. 1 ranking in America and landing one of the nation’s top high school players in the same week.
Jabari Parker, a 6-foot-8 prep star from Chicago, unveiled his highly anticipated college decision Thursday afternoon. Parker’s commitment to Duke further solidifies the Blue Devils’ quick return to the top of the college basketball landscape.
“What brought me to the decision was the course of history,” Parker told a large crowd in Chicago. “Duke is always going to be a team in the (NCAA) tournament. You can’t go wrong with the program. Also, most importantly, it’s a long-term investment. I feel like if I go there, I can get a good degree.”
Parker’s skills run the gamut. He can handle the ball on the perimeter and score in the low post. He doesn’t shy away from physical play, but is also quite graceful.
“With Jabari Parker, you have a player who is the complete package. There is simply nothing he really struggles with,” Scout.com’s Brian Snow says. “While not an elite athlete, he is more than capable athletically at any level, and Parker is as skilled as any player in the country. A truly elite prospect, Parker has excelled at every single level of high school basketball.”
The son of former NBA player Sonny Parker, Jabari already understands many of the pitfalls to avoid. Parker is “plug and play”-ready on and off the court.
“His particular skill set is one of the best that we have seen in the past few years,” Snow says. “Parker can score from every place on the floor and is a great rebounder and defender. Look for big things from Parker on both ends of the floor, as he is not only someone who takes pride in his offense, but he is excellent on the defensive end as well.”
Parker’s decision also sends a salvo to Kentucky and arch-rival North Carolina that 65-year-old Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski still can haul in a top-notch recruiting class.
Kentucky and coach John Calipari have set recent standards on the recruiting trail. Calipari’s last four classes have been ranked No. 1 overall by Scout.com, and this year’s group was on top before Thursday’s announcement. It is uncertain if Parker’s eventual signature will prompt any shifting.
Calipari has meshed his amazing ability to connect with players and his relationships with rappers Jay-Z and Drake to gain street cred with many of the nation’s top talents. Grammy award winner Jay-Z, who is also part owner of the Brooklyn Nets, was fined $50,000 by the NBA for visiting UK’s locker room moments after the Wildcats defeated North Carolina in the Elite Eight in 2011 and advanced to the Final Four.
Rapper Drake occasionally can be seen sitting behind the Wildcats’ bench at home games and was even awarded a 2012 national championship ring. He also served as an honorary coach at Midnight Madness in October.
However, Calipari and Kentucky have Coach K and the Blue Devils hot on their tail. Duke took over the nation’s No. 1 ranking Monday while UK missed the polls for the third consecutive week. And on Wednesday, UNC lost at Texas and is likely on its way out of the poll.
Perhaps the most important factor in Krzyzewski’s recent recruiting success stems from his association with some of the world’s greatest players while coaching the United States to gold medals in the past two Olympics. Krzyzewski’s stature is at an all-time high as a result. That’s another reason Parker, whom Sports Illustrated called “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James,” chose Duke. What other coach has served as a personal mentor to James in recent years?
James, who has said Duke would have been an option when coming out of high school if the rules were different in 2003, talks to Krzyzewski occasionally, and usually it’s not about basketball.
While Calipari has branded his program with more of a hip-hop culture, Krzyzewski, who is the all-time leader in coaching victories with 937 after his team dispatched Elon, 76-54, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night, gets his street cred from James, Kobe Bryant and today’s other top stars whom he guided to international success.
Duke’s history with four national championships and as one of the nation’s top programs for nearly 30 years is nice, but it doesn’t resonate much with today’s young stars.
“I’m not sure they need an archivist or a lot of history,” said Bucky Waters, a longtime college basketball analyst for many networks and a former head coach at West Virginia and Duke. “They see his guys going into the pros and doing well, like Kyrie Irving. They don’t think that deeply. They’re superficial, these kids.
“I don’t know what the AAU has to do with those decisions, but what they’re seeing at the Olympics and the way they see the gods of basketball treat Mike Krzyzewski can overcome any deficit.”
Parker is joined by Semi Ojeleye, 6-6 player from Ottawa, Kan., and Matt Jones, 6-4 from De Soto, Texas. Both are five-star prospects with Ojeleye the No. 8 small forward and Jones the No. 7 shooting guard in the nation.
That’s quite a haul, even one Calipari and Kentucky can respect.