As a Duke alum, I watched nearly every Duke game this year and have a number of thoughts on Jabari Parker, yet have refrained from writing about him. This is largely because I see an interesting blend of positives and negative and had been reticent to commit to a strong opinion either way. Now that the season is over, I’d like to lay out some troubling trends I have noticed as well as why they may not be fatal flaws.
First I would like to initiate a narrative that has gone largely unnoticed this year: Jabari Parker was a straight up chucker as a freshman. It’s not that people failed to notice that he took a ton of shots; after all his most common comparison is Carmelo Anthony. The fact of the matter is that when you launch a high volume of shots with the efficiency of a player like Carmelo, people are not going to complain about your chucking ways. But I do believe that Jabari’s inefficiency flew a bit under the radar for a number of reasons. First, let’s see how his usage and efficiency stats compare to those of his teammates as per sports-reference.com.
On one hand, a 115 offensive rating on a 32.7% usage is impressive vs. the caliber of opponent Duke played. On the other hand, it is not as if he was surrounded by garbage and Duke needed him to take every shot he could possibly get off. Duke’s other top rotation players all had a significant advantage in offensive rating, and it would be nice if Jabari had a better assist rate considering all of the shooting surrounding him. Other than Jefferson who did not attempt a 3, his other most common teammates all shot 37%+ from 3 with 4 of them hitting 41%+.
It’s easy to see why Parker took so many shots: he is the perceived best player on the team and carries with him a strong alpha male mentality. It is clear he believes that it is his role to carry the scoring load, so it stands to reason that he should be taking the lion’s share of shots for his team. But he took this to an extreme level. Nobody ever accused Carmelo Anthony of being unselfish, yet he took on a less gargantuan role as a freshman for Syracuse (note that I am now taking usage/o-rtg from statsheet.com, which is why Jabari’s figures are different from the prior table):
Carmelo played on a much more defensive oriented team where taking a high volume of medium efficiency shots carries more value. For reference, Duke’s team schedule adjusted O-Rtg was 123.5 vs. Syracuse’s 113.5, but their defense was much worse (102.3 vs. 91.3). Further, Carmelo was surrounded by significantly less 3 point shooting as he only had two regular teammates who made 3′s, shooting collectively 35% behind the arc. Yet he nevertheless posted a comfortably lower usage rate and higher assist rate. Once you consider context, Jabari almost makes Carmelo Anthony look like Steve Nash.
The other disconcerting trend is that Jabari Parker was significantly more efficient against bad defenses. While he is a good shooter for a freshman and has solid perimeter skills, he also operated quite a bit in the low post as he often played center for Duke. His best performance of the season came against Boston College’s swiss cheese defense, as they start bigs listed at 6’8 219 and 6’7 207. They have the #298 defense and are 238th in opponent 2p%. Naturally Jabari bullied them to kingdom come, as he finished with 29 points, 16 rebounds, and 12/17 FG in a performance that included 6 dunks. It was an entertaining show to be sure, but at the same time it was not against competition that remotely simulates NBA defense. If you break up his performance to teams that are top 100 in opposing 2p% and played a top 150 schedule (essentially weeding out Vermont who was impenetrable by pitiful America East offenses), here are how his per 40 minutes stats look:
|not top 100||27.1||17.8||59.4%||14.5||58.7%||8.3||1.9||2.9|
Note that the sample includes 500 minutes vs. good defenses and 574 vs. bad ones. Granted, we are taking a small sample and breaking it up into two smaller samples, and one of his best performances barely misses the cutoff as UNC only has the #102 2p% defense in the country. But even if you move his two UNC games in the tough sample, he still only musters a 44.2% eFG as compared to 59.6% in the weak sample. And the fact that the performance drop off is largely driven by a drop off 2 point efficiency makes it less likely to be largely due to fluke.
The bottom line is that Jabari bullied bad teams and he bullied them hard. This inflates his stats in a way that is not necessarily predictive of NBA performance. He will still be an issue for smaller matchups in the pros, but they will become less common and there will almost always be a bigger help defender on the floor. He still needs to develop his decision making and perimeter skills significantly to become an efficient scorer against NBA defenses, because his bullying did not work so well against tougher NCAA opposition.
For reference, here are Carmelo Anthony’s per 40 splits given the same criteria:
|not top 100||25.3||18.7||53.5%||13.1||53.2%||7.5||3||1.7|
Note that Carmelo also faced a higher % of good defenses, with 842 minutes in the tough sample vs. 432 in the weak sample. Naturally Melo’s performance fell off vs. serious defenses, but he padded his stats less vs. weaker teams and did not have a massive eFG% or 2p% chasm between the two splits. Also while his assists and turnovers both suffered against tougher teams, his ratio in the tough sample is still much better than that of Jabari which implies that he may have a superior feel for the game.
Again, take these splits with a grain of salt due to sample size issues, but it aligns with my perception. Jabari relied moreso on rim scoring against undersized competition whereas Melo’s midrange dominance translates to higher levels of competition with ease.
While they appear to be similar prospects at a glance, freshman Melo is comfortably superior to freshman Jabari. There is the possibility that Jabari merely needs time to adjust to being stoppable at the rim and adapt his game accordingly, but I would have felt better about this hypothesis if he had displayed some level of improvement down the stretch. Instead he shot 6/16 on 2′s vs Clemson, 7/20 vs Virginia, and 4/11 vs. Mercer as Duke was upset in round 1.
Mercer is hardly a challenge in the paint, as they posted the 112th best 2p% defense playing the 197th toughest offensive schedule. Yet they unwisely insisted on playing zone defense vs. Duke to stop Jabari, and it sort of worked. I say sort of because Duke shot 15/37 on 3′s and rebounded 16/40 of their own misses, and they should be unbeatable by Atlantic Sun competition when this happens. But Duke also punted defense this year in favor of a super offense, and allowed a 122 O-Rtg to Mercer. So when Jabari shot 4/11 on 2′s with 0 assists and 4 turnovers (the rest of the team attempted just 14 2′s and committed 8 turnovers), I think it’s fair to pin a significant amount of blame on him for the loss. Duke was given an all-you-can-eat buffet of quality 3 point looks for their 40% shooters, and Jabari diluted this by insisting on [not] getting his inside vs. the zone instead of trusting shooters to make shots. I understand that it’s part of the alpha dog mentality, but it would have been nice if he had displayed a bit more macro level perception instead of going full cancer and playing his team out of the tourney against a vastly inferior foe.
So why am I not screaming at the top of my lungs that Jabari will be a bust? There are a myriad of slippery aspects to any Jabari analysis, and I am not certain that these issues are indicative of any fundamental flaw that will invariably undermine him throughout his career. He still has an intriguing blend of size and skills, and he will be forced to improve his decision making when he learns that trying to repeatedly dunk on players such as Roy Hibbert is difficult. He’s such a fiery competitor that it’s not difficult to envision him finding a way to make his offense work in the pros, especially if he lands with a good coach. And while his defense was not great, he did post excellent rebound numbers and solid steals and blocks. So I am reticent to sour too heavily on Jabari, as there is much to like. But I also think he has a wider range of outcomes than common narratives dictate, since he does need to overhaul his offensive approach to succeed as a pro. It’s possible that he doesn’t peak any higher than a Jeff Green level combo forward who is a solid scorer but does not bring enough else to the table to be particularly valuable.
If he does elect to stay at Duke, I believe his sophomore season will be illuminating for his NBA future, as he will be forced to share the paint with possible 2015 #1 pick Jahlil Okafor. He should spend more time on the perimeter, and he will no longer have the excuse of limited experience vs. defense that can physically match up with him.
Throughout the season I had Jabari in a close battle for the #2 slot on my big board with Dante Exum, but after a disappointing postseason I rate Exum comfortably ahead of him. Now the question becomes whether I prefer Parker over a prospect such as Marcus Smart, and I am leaning in the direction of Smart for now. There is enough to like such that Jabari will eventually settle into my 3-5 range, but his selfish ways and issues vs. stingy defenses remove some of his luster as a tanking prize.