On the night of Nov. 12, college basketball history was made in Chicago. At least according to ESPN.
It wasn’t so much that four of the top five teams in all the preseason polls were in the same building to play one another at the dawn of a new season. It was the fact that Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle — apparently three of the greatest players in the history of basketball — were all in the building. If Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan had all miraculously been dropped from the ceiling as their 20-something selves, there could not possibly have been more noise surrounding the evening.
ESPN is always relentless in hyping events that air on the network, but it took Parker-Wiggins-Randle to new heights. At one point in the run-up to the games, a breathless ESPN announcer said, “Jabari Parker faces Andrew Wiggins on Tuesday night . . . ” Somewhere along the way he slipped in the fact that Parker would bring Duke with him and Wiggins would be wearing a Kansas uniform.
Parker is 18. Wiggins is 18. Randle is now 19 — although he was 17 days away from that birthday while playing for Kentucky against Michigan State in Chicago. Parker and Wiggins were playing in their second college game that night; Randle — the old man — his third. Long before any of them put on a college uniform, the so-called experts had them labeled as the top three picks in the 2014 NBA draft. Some NBA teams were reportedly considering tanking to have a chance to draft them.
In the days after the Chicago doubleheader, most of the basketball world frothed at the mouth at what it had seen from the three spectacular talents. Dick Vitale practically hyperventilated before, during and after the two games. In fact, a couple of weeks later when Parker went coast-to-coast for a basket in a Duke-Michigan game, he said that Parker reminded him of LeBron James.
“I can tell you one thing for sure about these guys: None of them is LeBron James,” said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose freshman point guard Tyler Ennis may be the most valuable first-year player in the country. “Guys like LeBron come along once every 20 or 30 years. These kids are good but the focus now is so much about NBA, NBA that people don’t want to just sit back and say, ‘He’s a really good college player.’ ”
This is what the one-and-done rule has done to basketball. Because everyone who sells and markets the sport knows that the top freshmen are never going to be sophomores they start screaming about how great they are long before they play a college game. The freshmen are more likely to play well in college nowadays because they face fewer and fewer great upperclassmen each year — most are already in the NBA.
There is no doubt that Parker, Wiggins and Randle are extremely talented. So far, though, none has come close to being as good in college as Anthony Davis. Remember Davis? Two years ago he dominated the sport, leading Kentucky to the national championship while deservedly being voted player of the year. He was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft that June.
And, of course, he has completely dominated the NBA since then, right? Wrong.
Davis has been very good for someone not yet 21, but is still part of a losing team. A year ago, the New Orleans Pelicans (then the Hornets) were 27-55. This season, with Davis averaging a more-than-respectable 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, they were 15-20 entering Saturday night’s game in Dallas.
As one veteran NBA scout said, speaking of one-and-dones in general and the current freshmen specifically: “If you build your team around a 19-year-old, it means you aren’t going to make the playoffs that year.”
That doesn’t mean that the Pelicans and Davis won’t be a factor in the NBA in a few years. It doesn’t mean that the current crop won’t go on to stardom. It just means that the hyperventilating should stop.
Let’s fast-forward two months. Michigan State, the team most people didn’t even notice was in the building that night, is ranked No. 5 in the nation and has one loss. Kentucky, the team that people were whispering might go 40-0 because of its super freshmen, is 12-3 and ranked No. 14. Duke is 12-4, the third loss coming at Notre Dame on Jan. 4 when Coach Mike Krzyzewski sat Parker, who was having an awful game, for the last five minutes. And Kansas is 11-4, having lost a nonconference home game last weekend for the first time in about 100 years.
That doesn’t mean that Duke, Kentucky or Kansas won’t be in the Final Four. It just means that it isn’t a coincidence that top-ranked Arizona is 16-0 with a very good freshman — Aaron Gordon — who also happens to play with some talented upperclassmen, most notably leading scorer Nick Johnson, who is a junior. At Syracuse, Ennis has been superb — averaging 11.6 points and 5.7 assists per game after Saturday’s win over North Carolina (while turning it over just 1.4 times per game, even though he handles the ball constantly) — but there’s no way the No. 2 Orange would be 16-0 if it didn’t have senior C.J. Fair, who leads the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game and is a calming presence in tight games.
“Ennis has been terrific,” Boeheim said. “He’s a really special and gifted player. But C.J. Fair also happens to be a great college player. Doug McDermott [Creighton] is a great college player and so is Aaron Craft [Ohio State]. But everyone gets so caught up in what they’ll be in the NBA that they forget to enjoy them in college. That’s the shame of it.”
All three of the hyped freshmen have flashed great potential. They have also played like freshmen at times: each has more turnovers than assists — Parker is averaging 2.2 per game even though he is likely to put up a shot almost every time he touches the ball — and Wiggins is shooting 44.6 percent. In fact, there are some who think his teammate, freshman Joel Embiid, the 7-foot center who only started playing basketball three years ago, may ultimately have more pro upside.
But that’s for later. For now, it should be fun to watch all the freshmen develop and improve and play their way through setbacks. Sure, it would be great to see how much better they might be as juniors and seniors, but that’s not going to happen.
The teams that are playing the best basketball right now — Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Wichita State — all have experienced players who know how to win. Those who are freshman-dependent are still learning.
That doesn’t mean anyone will turn down the hype anytime soon. “It is what it is,” Boeheim said with a sigh.
Which, in this case, is a shame.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.