By Evan Hall
Duke, a 3 seed, lost to Mercer, a 14 seed, in the round of 64 in the NCAA tournament on Friday -- a thing you likely already know, because you are a sports fan, and, more frustratingly, because your sister-in-law is now comfortably winning your family bracket pool. That's a disaster for you, as it is for me (because I'm pretty obviously projecting here), but the loss appears to have taken a proportionately heavier toll on Jabari Parker than it has even on the collective's agreed-upon bracket of expectations.
After the game, and after wiping away some well-justified tears, Parker was asked how he felt. His one word response -- "incompletion" -- immediately launched draft pundits and desperate fans of tanking teams (I am one of the latter group) into earnest conversations about whether Jabari would stay in school another year or declare for the draft. When pressed to say which way he was leaning, he aptly responded "I don't know what I'm going to do." Because this was so soon after a profoundly devastating loss, and because this is an extremely personal decision, that's all we know. But that won't stop anyone from talking about it.
Parker has had an unassailably and enormously successful freshman season, Mercer upset notwithstanding. Most draftniks consider Parker the most NBA-ready player in a loaded draft class, and his stats for the year make this an easy case to bear out. Parker averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds this year, with 47/36/75 shooting splits -- all good numbers even before considering his still-emerging potential. He's a teenager, a fact quickly forgotten when you watch him methodically and meticulously work his polished game against the inferior talents of college basketball. He has a more varied repertoire of post moves than many NBA big men. He has a trustworthy handle, a sound jump shot, and if intangibles are your jam, all reports say that he has those too. Of all the prospects of recent memory, Jabari Parker most plays like a completely individuated adult on the court. It's only off of the court that he's treated otherwise.
Should Parker decide to stay in college for another year or even choose to serve a Mormon mission -- a possibility not totally ruled out by ESPN's Chad Ford -- we are sure to hear an onslaught of criticisms and defenses and speculative evaluations on what Parker should or shouldn't have done. This is not new. As was the case with Marcus Smart's decision to stay in college last year, writers and fans and TV analysts thrive on this sort of vicarious decision-making. With Smart's choice to stay in school, the comments tended toward the negative. He was passing up a chance to go pro, to make franchise pick type money, to secure gainful employment, to capitalize on a weak draft and a rising stock, to grow up and do something with his life, etcetera. Grandpa-speak ringing in the ears ad nauseam.
This year, we're sure to hear comparisons to Smart, who because of a stronger draft class at the top of the lottery and an underwhelming sophomore season, will likely be taken at least three or four spots lower than he would have been selected in 2013. This is a predictable process, because this kind of patronizing discourse is so characteristic of college sports. The debate swirling around a prospect like Jabari and his decision to go pro or not -- with all its shoulds and should-nots and "why would he" -- reeks of the same unchecked paternalism that guides the machinations of the NCAA as a whole. It's a rephrased iteration of the argument that "we shouldn't pay them because they wouldn't know how to use the money responsibly anyway," only it's been appropriated to a context not so clearly fraught with ethical implications.
There are a whole host of torturously intertwined and irreversibly influential elements that make this debate such an appealing one to daytime talking heads and idea-starved writers on deadline. There is the money, of course. Even if Parker were to go as high in the 2015 draft as he would in this year's, he would be sacrificing a year's worth of salary, as well as delaying the date on which he could sign his second contract -- the contract that typically nets superstars their best paychecks. There is also the chance that he could, like Smart, hurt his draft stock by overexposing himself. With another year of ruthless, lasered-in scrutiny, Parker's weaknesses -- like his supposedly middling athleticism and his frequently absentee defense -- could grow more irritating and more worrisome to scouts and GMs, and he could fall in the draft.
On the other hand, by going pro, Parker would be forgoing any extension of his college years -- a phase many of us look back on fondly. Then there is also the Mormon mission. With an age limit of 26, serving a Mormon mission is a time-sensitive opportunity, and one that, should Parker want it, would require two years of time during which he could be developing his game.
All of these factors coalesce to form something of an impossible situation. Parker has no way of knowing how much he will enjoy the life of an NBA player, or of a Mormon missionary. College life is a known quantity, and one he appears to be enjoying, but there's probably little else involved here that Parker could confidently forecast. Still, even as unknowable as this decision may be for him, as any decision is, really, he is far more qualified to understand his desires and goals that would inform that decision than anyone else is. Roughly said, this is why fans and writers and those of us deeply interested in that decision can only crawl into that space awkwardly and incompletely. Even as someone who has served a two-year Mormon mission, I cannot hope to understand Parker's level of interest in doing the same, and even as former college students or former professional athletes, writers and analysts cannot begin to parse which of the components of his decision that Parker should prioritize highest.
Jabari Parker is a phenomenal basketball player, and as such, he has become a peripheral character in the lives of Duke fans and NBA fans and other vaguely involved parties. But like a character in any novel, we only know about him what the narrating voices tell us. We read a profile in Sports Illustrated, or we watch a minute-long postgame interview, or we gaze at his basketball-reference page all in some effort to understand him as a basketball player, the only real role he plays in our lives. This is all a natural and acceptable and frequently pleasant part of the sports fan experience. The problems only arise when we start to believe that the information those voices have given us about Jabari Parker The Basketball Player translates into any concrete comprehension of Jabari Parker The Person.
While there appears to be no inherent danger in any of this wanton conjecture, these are the kinds of conversations that lead to the frothing outrage after The Decision, or the hate-laden assaults on Marcus Smart's character after he shoved an especially loud and odious fan. Well-intended attempts at empathy transform into thinly disguised impositions of personal values onto other people. Mildly intriguing dialogues about athletes mutate into the overpowering ugliness of sanctimonious disapproval. It all starts out so innocently. We think we're trying to understand, when really, we're only demonstrating the hubris that comes with believing we ever could.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.