DURHAM – This could be it for Jabari Parker at Duke.
His final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium could come tonight when No. 4 Duke plays host to rival North Carolina – if the freshman phenom jumps to the NBA after the season, as most outsiders always assumed he would do.
Parker insists he still hasn’t made up his mind.
“If I feel like there are things I could improve on or things I left, like during the season, then I will probably come back,” Parker said.
“Saying that, I didn’t give it my all and that I have regrets, that I have to come back because I owe this program so much,” he added. “A deciding factor is where I’m going to grow the most, whether it’s in the NBA or even in college, the learning experiences that I need as far as (growing as) a basketball player.”
The Wooden Award finalist has been the most consistent player for Duke (23-7, 12-5 Atlantic Coast Conference).
He’s the ACC’s top rebounder, its No. 2 scorer and the highest-scoring freshman in school history with averages of 18.8 points and nine rebounds.
He could become the first Duke freshman to lead the team in scoring and rebounds.
“He (has) been a willing learner, and he (has) accepted coaching extremely well,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And so he (has) worked in concert with his coaching staff to become better. For any kid, that’s the key to success. For a lot of guys who are really talented, they never learn that, and he has that.”
Duke senior Tyler Thornton was part of the same 2010 recruiting class as NBA All-Star game MVP Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers and as a sophomore shared the backcourt with Austin Rivers, who is now with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Those two one-and-dones have plenty in common with Parker, he said.
“They have a natural feel for the game that the average player doesn’t have,” Thornton said. “Their instincts and the things that they’re able to do pretty much aren’t things that you’re able to work on during drills or just during the summertime. ... Their willingness to learn and just be great teammates and all those things come together, and it shows on the court. They’ve been able to be spectacular as well as be within the team.”
That has been one of Parker’s challenges: balancing his position as the most visible player at a program that’s always one of the nation’s most polarizing, and his desire to fit into the team.
“He’s pretty much our best player, so everything he does is magnified,” Thornton said. “But in the locker room, in practice, within our team, he just wants to be one of the guys.”
Of course, not everyone received scholarship offers as a sixth grader, or appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while in high school.
“I really wasn’t a guy that idolizes fame and self-glorification,” Parker said. “Really, what drives me is the team goal and my responsibility (to teammates), so I guess being grounded really helps me, and the friendships that I have with these guys on the team kind of blinds a lot of things that come my way.”
That single-minded focus does have its drawbacks.
Parker said many people don’t come to know him away from the court because he is “so consumed with basketball ... I don’t really have a lot of time for the college life and activities.”
Does he regret that?
“I don’t think so,” Parker said. “I think what I wanted mostly to experience in college is playing college basketball and learning. It’s been great.”
The 6-foot-8 Parker has certainly been a tough matchup for opponents, who must respect both his touch from the perimeter and his ability to battle in the paint.
“He really has no holes in his game,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who joked that the best way to defend him was to “hope he sprains his ankle going up the steps.”
A few teams have found some ways to slow him down without resorting to that.
Virginia was the last to hold him to single-digit scoring, back on Jan. 13, when he managed eight points on 3-of-11 shooting against the Cavaliers’ tough “pack-line” defense.
His unquestioned low point came at Notre Dame. Parker had seven points on 2-of-10 shooting and wound up on the bench for the final 3½ minutes of that 79-77 loss Jan. 4.
In the last meeting with the Tar Heels (23-7, 13-4), he was just 2-of-5 in the second half, and the Blue Devils combined to miss 13 straight shots during their 74-66 loss two weeks ago in Chapel Hill.
Parker said he “kind of was forced to flush” that performance because Duke played then-No. 1 Syracuse two nights later. He desperately wants to atone for that loss. He said he owes the program and his teammates that much.
“Really, I’ve been set up for a good position where Duke is setting me up for a lot of exposure, and it’s part of my responsibility to show up for them because the team that we have, I play a really vital role,” Parker said. “That’s what drives me, just to be there for my team.”