With just under 10 minutes left in the first half of Tuesday's game, Kansas center Joel Embiid had the ball, single teamed on the left block.
Duke's Jabari Parker rotated over to double, but it was a marshmallow double team, one that's as soft as they come. Parker didn't trap. He didn't close in or close out on Embiid. Instead, he came in lackadaisically with two hands raised as if he were just strolling by for an awkward stop-and-chat to whisper, "Hello" and then continue his stroll.
When a defender comes over for a double like that, it has to be a hard double. Otherwise, you're basically freeing up the paint with the defender, who is supposed to be doubling, guarding no one. That's what happened to Parker when he drifted off Embiid after about a half a second of faux double teaming. With his hands by his side, he shaded back toward the paint, but didn't retreat far enough. He didn't commit to the double team. He didn't commit to protecting the rim. And who was he guarding? No one. He was guarding no one.
Flat footed in the paint with no one in sight isn't the best position in which a defender can put himself. Andrew Wiggins knows this.
Recognizing Parker's lack of aggression, Wiggins cut to the paint.
At this point, Parker could have still made up for his mistake. He could have chucked (slightly bumped) Wiggins as he ran toward the rim, but instead, he continued to stand still with his arms by his side, like a replica of the statue of him that may one day be erected outside some NBA team's arena. With Parker now unable to affect the play, Embiid founds a cutting Wiggins, who finished at the rim.
That's the thing about Jabari Parker. He might be the best scorer in the country, but that defense makes him look like – well, it makes him look like a freshman.
And, honestly, that's all right. He is a freshman. He can improve on defense.
Freshman tend to improve throughout the season, and even into upcoming years, but still, I have a distinct feeling we're going to start hearing criticism of Parker's defense as we near the draft. Maybe it won't happen this week. Maybe it won't happen this month. Maybe it won't happen unless he has a more obvious fail in an NCAA Tournament game in March, but internally, Parker's defense is something NBA teams have to be noticing.
The Carmelo Anthony comparisons are uncanny at this point: the mannerisms, the shot selection, the offensive versatility, the rebounding, the length, the ability to finish at the rim, even the way the ball swishes through the net. It's all so very Melo-like. But for now, so is his defense.
Jim Boeheim hid Anthony's defense during Anthony's lone year at Syracuse. You can take a long player, plug him into that 2-3, Syracuse zone and he's not going to look that bad at any given point. That defense is so much more based on system and style than actual personnel. That's part of why, even though ‘Cuse runs a defense-first program, the Orange doesn't have one alum in the NBA whom anyone could call an average defensive player. (Let's wait to see a little more of Michael Carter-Williams before we include him or exclude him from this discussion.)
For now, though, Parker looks like Melo on one end and a marshmallow on the other. With Coach K running Parker's basketball life, his defense will presumably get better throughout the season. He'll start to understand the game more. He'll get used to a faster pace than he faced in high school, where he won four consecutive Illinois state titles. As Parker's rotations and defensive awareness improve, so will his draft stock.
Jabari Parker could be great. Now, all he needs to do is show us why.