It was more than a single performance that swayed consensus favor from Andrew Wiggins to Jabari Parker. Looking back now, it’s obvious that shift was owed as much to off-court narrative as on-court impact, too. And as Wiggins thrives, Parker struggles, and the perception of them slowly moves back toward its starting point, understanding the process behind its ebbs and flows has become increasingly important – even if it should have been avoided in the first place entirely.
The Wiggins hype train was out of control even before he committed to play at Kansas last summer, and the only way it could stay on track was if he outperformed even wildly unrealistic expectations. He isn’t the best draft prospect since LeBron James, of course, and even if he were, there’s a crucial, overlooked distinction of such praise – “prospect” – that belies evaluating his collegiate play through established norms. As the season approached, whispered words of patience from the KU staff with regard to Wiggins’s transition grew louder by the day. Never mind that Wiggins had yet to even suit up for the Jayhawks; he was already overrated.
So when Parker – a former Sports Illustrated cover boy and “next LeBron” in his own right – exploded for 19 points and five rebounds in the first half against Wiggins and the Jayhawks on November 12th at the United Center, no one was surprised. He (along with Kentucky’s Julius Randle) had been the recipient of the national plaudits that Wiggins lost in prior weeks, and scored 22 points on just 10 shots in 23 minutes during the Blue Devils’s season-opener versus Davidson a few days before. Nearly as predictable as Parker’s brilliance, then, was Wiggins’s relative no-show: He scored 6 points and was stuck on the bench due to early foul trouble.
But the freshmen reversed roles at halftime. Parker managed just eight points on as many shots in the game’s second stanza, when Wiggins scored 16 of his 22 points and iced the game for Kansas late with a step-back jumper and thunderous transition dunk. But despite a 94-83 Jayhawks win and similar statistical outings – 27 points (9-18 FGs) and nine rebounds for Parker, 22 points (9-15 FGs) and 8 rebounds for Wiggins – public perception continued trending in the direction of Parker.
It wasn’t exactly hard to see why. Parker scored his points in every way imaginable: pull-up three-pointers, drives to the rim, alley-oop finishes. Wiggins, meanwhile, had just one basket outside the paint and was assisted on the majority of his makes. If only one of these guys would be a future NBA superstar, it was Parker that looked the part. Wiggins seemed more athlete than player, effortlessly flying down the floor and wreaking havoc on defense, but struggling with the ball in his hands.
Their next six weeks of play confirmed the major takeaway from that supposedly fateful night in Chicago. Parker would score at least 21 points in six of Duke’s remaining nine non-conference games, while Wiggins failed to notch more than 15 points in six of KU’s final 11 outings before Big XII play. Slowly but surely, their reputation in league circles began to more closely align with their respective levels of productivity. Parker never overtook Wiggins as the top prospect on ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford’s big board, but certainly became a viable option for a team selecting first overall this summer.
It’s become a common, tired trope that the NBA Draft is “all about potential.” Some would argue that Wiggins remained in such high regard among scouts during his struggles is indicative of that fact, but if anything, Parker’s rise to challenge him actually invalidates it. That’s not to say Parker is a finished product; he’s just 18 years-old, after all, and stands to benefit exponentially from a professional strength and conditioning program. But even the sizable group of Wiggins detractors would admit his ceiling is comfortably taller than Parker’s.
Parker’s glitzy numbers, though, mattered at least as much. Below are season-long statistics for he and Wiggins. Though the latter has been more efficient than anyone cares to realize, it’s still clear that Wiggins’s overall offensive impact has been a step below Parker’s since the season tipped off.
Parker has Wiggins beat in most every category here, but the discrepancy between their numbers isn’t what early season narrative would have you believe. Player efficiency rating (PER), points, and rebounds account for the most sizable gaps between them, which serves as justification for those who have already deemed Parker a superstar and Wiggins disappointing. Points and rebounds are the most commonly utilized statistics by laymen to appropriate a forward’s worth, and PER – no matter your thoughts on it – is at least a surefire indicator of offensive prowess. Parker, then, has obviously had a more impressive freshman season.
But context muddies the water a bit, and at least partially explains why Wiggins’s statistical profile falls behind Parker’s. Chief among them? Team fit and position. Parker’s teammates at Duke are talented; Rodney Hood might join him in the lottery, and the Blue Devils have one of the deepest backcourts in America. Even so, Bill Self’s roster is the extreme envy of not only Mike Krzyzewski, but most every coach in college basketball. Joel Embiid, ironically, might be the current frontrunner for the number one pick, Wayne Selden is a first round lock whenever he decides to leave school, and Perry Ellis is one of the best players in the Big XII. Those three players would be clear-cut alpha dogs on some top 25 teams, but share the load with Wiggins in Lawrence.
The knock on Wiggins this season is that he has a tendency to be passive or “get lost.” But letting offense come to him and keeping his teammates involved while playing winning basketball are luxuries – or restrictions, depending on whom you ask – Wiggins can afford in Lawrence. Parker, on the other hand, has no such choice. If he’s not putting up big numbers and playing a ball-dominant role, Duke will suffer on the whole. Their usage percentages tell the same story: Parker’s rate of 32.5% ranks second in the ACC and 19th in the country; Wiggins’s mark of 25.3% is eighth in the Big XII.
Perhaps more important than the quality of each player’s teammates is their quantity. Parker and Wiggins, both 6’8” with broad shoulders (but far different body types), always projected as skilled forwards in college and the NBA despite playing the role of nominal big men in high school. Due mostly to Duke’s discernible lack of size on the interior, that hasn’t changed for Parker; he’s always one of the Blue Devils’s two biggest players on the floor. Wiggins, on the other hand, is a full-time wing for the Jayhawks with players like Embiid and Ellis occupying the paint, a move that requires wholesale adjustment not lost on his head coach.
“[Wiggins] is playing on the perimeter, he’s playing guard,” Self said recently. “He’s never played guard before. There are so many things that go into it that have allowed him probably to be not as comfortable as what a lot of people would expect him to be immediately.”
Forget intangibles like comfort and convenience; Wiggins’s statistics – as shooter, playmaker, rebounder, and overall performer – have suffered as he’s switched to a new position, too. And considering his exceptional production of late, that’s another feather in his cap – especially as Parker’s current level of play falls well below the standards he set in November and December.
The chart below contains each player’s numbers from conference games only. Highlighted in red are marks that fall at least 10 percent below his season-long norm; in green are those that have risen at least 10%. The color scheme of either column is telling.
This kind of analysis isn’t totally fair to Parker. His overall statistics are better than Wiggins’s for the most part, meaning his improvement had to be bigger than his counterpart’s to achieve ‘green’ status. It also bears mentioning that Parker, while struggling like few thought he could, has managed the same PER in conference play that Wiggins has compiled all season. The talent-level of their teammates works in Parker’s favor from this perspective, too; it’s easier for defenses to focus attention on a single player when he’s surrounded by obviously inferior ones.
That’s all the sugarcoating to be gleaned from this chart, though. Wiggins has soundly outplayed Parker since the New Year, and done so despite an exceedingly difficult schedule. Kansas became the first team since 1997 to beat four consecutive ranked opponents with a win over Baylor on January 20th, and defeated 16th-ranked Iowa State for the second time this season earlier this week to move to 7-0 in Big XII play. KU’s other wins? An easy one on the road at TCU, and a nail-biter to open the conference season in Norman against #23 Oklahoma. Parker and the Blue Devils, meanwhile, are 5-2 in 2014 and have faced just one ranked ACC opponent so far. Duke beat Pittsburgh, but their slate still pales in comparison to KU’s.
Big picture, though, there’s only so much left to learn about Parker and Wiggins. All of this stat-tracking – no matter which player it favors – betrays the optimistic belief that’s led to unmatched anticipation for the 2014 draft: that there could be multiple franchise-changers for the taking.
And as long as neither player wildly outperformed or fell far below realistic expectations, Wiggins would always be ahead of Parker in the prospect pecking order. For all of Parker’s polish and versatility, there are certain limits to his potential that don’t apply to Wiggins. An offense can be built around a player like Parker, one capable of playing multiple positions and scoring from anywhere. But almost every team in the league employs a defender of his merely solid physical profile, an inevitability that leads to just passing concerns on offense, and far bigger ones on the other end of the floor. Who will Parker defend at the next level? He won’t necessarily be a defensive minus, but has little chance to be anything more than a solid team defender in the NBA. That’s hardly a huge knock in a vacuum, but the unique strength of this draft class magnifies every player’s every weakness.
And a fully evolved, ceiling-scraping Andrew Wiggins has fewer of them than any wing prospect in many, many years. His elite blend of size, skill, and athleticism at least allow him Parker’s offensive potential, but offer possible defensive value that just a handful of NBA players can match. In a league where two-way players are more en vogue than ever, Wiggins is the exceedingly rare prospect that has superstar potential on both sides of the ball. And as the college basketball season approaches its apex, that will remain the case whether he continues to outshine Parker or not.
In a draft so rife with top-shelf talent, ignoring potential in favor of production is an especially dangerous proposition. Fortunately for teams awarded the luxury of that choice, Wiggins’s recent play has made it so they won’t have to choose at all.
*Statistical support for this post provided by sports-reference.com/cbb/
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