Second in a four-part series.
"The best high school basketball player since LeBron James is Jabari Parker..."
Those 12 words appeared on the cover of the May 21, 2012 edition of Sports Illustrated. Plenty has happened in the 16-plus months since then, but two incidents in particular - a fractured right foot and Andrew Wiggins' reclassification into the Class of 2013 - have turned the 6'8" Parker into something of an afterthought.
The SI headline may have bordered ever-so-close to the Land of Excess (calling Parker the best high schooler since Greg Oden would have been more apt), but it's easy to understand why many were getting caught up in the hype. A month before that infamous issue hit the newsstand, Parker became only the fourth non-senior to win the Gatorade National Player of the Year award (Oden, James and Brandon Knight were the others).
Daniel Poneman, a talent evaluator for Five-Star Basketball, was quoted in that very issue, and not only did he fail to shy away from the LeBron comparisons - he took them head-on:
"Jabari Parker is a once-in-a-generation player. His basketball IQ right now might be better than LeBron James's [at 17]. He's figured out how to dominate a game without scoring. He doesn't care if he scores two points or 50 as long as his team wins. And I've never seen anyone who wants to win as bad as this kid."
Parker's mid-range game is NBA-ready, and at 240 pounds, he's already built to handle the rigors of professional basketball. It is, however, a bit disconcerting that 30-35 of those pounds came while Parker was recovering from his broken foot - an injury that allowed Wiggins to jump to the top of everyone's power rankings.
But unlike Wiggins, Parker is a legitimate point forward with excellent passing ability. Two years ago, a college assistant coach told Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis that Parker's game is reminiscent of Grant Hill "except Jabari is a better shooter."
When watching highlights of Parker, he doesn't necessarily pop off of the screen like others in his recruiting class (specifically, Wiggins and Arizona signee Aaron Gordon). But very few college freshmen see the floor as well as the reigning McDonald's National Player of the Year, and even fewer are willing to make that extra pass, especially since it comes at the expense of their respective scoring averages.
And perhaps that's the thing that sets Parker apart from his peers. He has a unique blend of skill, intelligence and humility that's refreshing in many ways - so much so that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed it out during an interview with Sports Illustrated last year:
"Jabari is unique. His family has great values. Jabari has earned the right to be a role model for kids in Chicago. His character and seriousness of purpose are exceptional."
Great values. Role model. Seriousness of purpose. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of Parker's main goals in life is to be a community activist in his hometown of Chicago.
So, to recap: Jabari Parker is a fantastic basketball player, a high-character young man and selfless almost to a fault. Andrew Wiggins may be the crown jewel of the 2014 draft class, but Parker would be a hell of a consolation prize.
NBA scout on Jabari Parker: "I realize that he is not the upper echelon athlete, but he is upper echelon in every thing else." @KDTrey5— Dave Telep (@DaveTelep) July 4, 2013
We've heard elements of Parker's story before: an underage prodigy playing with - and excelling against - kids who were much older (see Mayo, O.J.). An exceptionally talented player from the South Side of Chicago who led a powerhouse Simeon Rice program to multiple state championships (see Rose, Derrick).
But there's something about Parker that's... different.
"Everyone thinks I'm so different, but it's a good different," said Parker in an interview with Sports Illustrated. "My faith keeps me grounded."
His faith - Parker is a practicing member (and an ordained priest) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - presented an interesting wrinkle last summer. While most assumed that Parker would go the one-and-done route in college, there was a strong belief that the "one" would be followed by a "two": The LDS Church strongly encourages its college-aged members (usually men) to embark on a two-year mission.
Last October, the LDS Church lowered the age requirement for beginning a Mormon mission from 19 to 18. Parker decided to pass on becoming a missionary (choosing instead to sign on with Coach K at Duke), but his faith figures to play a major role in his development going forward.
That said, there's plenty of reason to believe that the soft-spoken Parker will be just fine on the next level. He's enamored with John Wooden to the point where he has a quote from the former UCLA coach in his Twitter bio. He volunteers for a number of organizations, including the Salvation Army. And unlike most players who won the MVP award at the Jordan Brand Classic, Parker spent three years serving as the waterboy for Simeon High's junior varsity basketball team.
It's clear that despite the fame, Parker has stayed humble thanks to a strong support system centered around his family. His father, Sonny, was the 17th pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, and spent six seasons with the Golden State Warriors. His mother, Lola, is a former LDS missionary, while his two older brothers - Darryl and Christian - both played college basketball.
Although he rarely goes anywhere without The Book of Mormon in his backpack, Parker is a lot like your average 18-year-old basketball prodigy. He prefers Magna Carta... Holy Grail over Yeezus, and counts both "Can I Live?" and "You, Me, Him and Her" among his favorite Jay Z songs.
So while there are those who may be hesitant in embracing a Mormon athlete - in particular, Sixers' fans - there isn't any cause for alarm.
Robert Smith, head coach of Simeon High, has been quoted as saying that Parker is the best player that he's ever coached. For what it's worth, Smith guided the aforementioned Rose to consecutive Illinois state titles in 2006 and 2007.
"When all is said and done, [Parker] could be a dominant player like LeBron or Amare Stoudemire," said Smith in an interview with Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago. "He has the potential to be one of those dominant individual players."