Los Angeles—Johnathan Gray was the winner of Gatorade’s Male High School Athlete of the Year award, but Jabari Parker was the main attraction.
It’s not often that you come across a prospect that’s been touted as the very best of all time. Now a junior, Parker is staring down his entire future, with expectations and more questions than answers.
As Jabari stands on stage for the opening introductions, you’re struck not by his height of 6'8", but by his presence. LeBron James, the high school star most often compared to Parker, appeared all man in terms of size and stature before he hit the age of 18, but Parker is less sturdy, with less of a build.
Perhaps there’s more growing to do, or perhaps it’s just a testament to the fact that Parker isn’t going to be the next LeBron James, an idea that he’s more than comfortable with. "I just wanna take on the role and take that fire and get better," Parker says.
Parker’s loss to Gray doesn’t seem to sting. For one, Gray is a spectacular prospect, and one that was as deserving of the honor as anyone for an award of this kind—it’s truly an honor just to be nominated.
However, Parker is also acutely aware that this award isn’t a pinnacle, but the precursor to a tremendous career filled with potential, saying, "I think that everything that’s given to me is for a reason, and luckily I’m able to get this at a young age. It just prepares me for more important things in life."
Still, the days of being able to bask in the journey ahead are drawing to a close quickly. Alonzo Mourning, a presenter and past winner of the Gatorade award, recognizes the tremendous potential, but also knows that there is much work to be done to turn that potential into results, saying of Parker, "He has a lot of strengths, but he has to work at his weaknesses more than his strengths."
Parker, to his credit, is staying grounded and realizing he’s got much work to do. When I asked him about his biggest weakness, he didn’t hesitate, saying, "I think I need to work on my aggressiveness." He added, "I think I lost that my junior season because there is a lot that your skill can make up for, but going forward, I need to work on my aggressiveness.”
Mourning sees it as a bit more involved than that: "The game has transformed now to more of a perimeter game, so a lot of these guys have to handle the ball more, how to shoot deeper. Instead of just posting up, he has to learn how to penetrate off the dribble. He has all those skills; he just has to continue to develop and put the work in."
Mourning recognizes that Parker may have to do the hard work under quite a bit more media attention than he received. Mourning points out this ceremony is much different than when he was honored, saying, "I didn’t have all this, and the award didn’t look like that."
Parker's media spotlight will undoubtedly grow over the next year. He appears to be relatively comfortable with the media attention, but watching him do countless interviews, you can tell there are times he grows weary of the questions, and there are subjects that he doesn’t want to discuss.
One of those topics is his Mormon faith. Mormons, as encouraged by their faith, to go on a mission. Of course, most don’t have the enormous pro potential and earning potential that Parker is likely to have in the next few years.
However, when it comes to talking about that mission, Parker is succinct in his response to a fellow reporter: "I don’t feel comfortable answering that question at this time." Missions tend to last up to 24 months, making even the simple idea of forgoing college altogether (waiting out the one-and-done rule) a little more complicated.
Jabari insists that he hasn’t had a chance to talk to many coaches about his college future, but there is no question that he’ll have plenty of options. He said, "I don’t know where recruiting goes, but hopefully I’ll be able to narrow my choices down and make my decision in the fall."
It should be pointed out that Parker tweeted out his top 10 schools last night.
UK, Stanford, michigan state, Kansas, Florida, Duke, BYU, Georgetown, Depaul, UNC. No order.— Jabari Parker (@JabariParker22) July 11, 2012
Parker even insists that it’s not out of the question that he’ll stay beyond the one-and-done, which has been the pattern for guys of his talent. "If I don’t do well, I’ll wanna make up for it the next year," he says. "Even if we don’t win a national championship, that could dictate it too because I wanna win. I wanna be remembered, and a lot of people get remembered for winning."
Parker does insist that the decision to go to college won’t be a formality. While he may be only entering his senior year, he’s wise enough to know there is more to life than just basketball: "You play basketball for a reason, and one of my reasons is to get an education. I know basketball doesn’t last for a long time, so this is a way for me to build a foundation to live successfully."
Still, it’s hard to believe that Parker will be able to turn down the money and security a lottery pick can get him after his freshman year. There will be plenty of things to figure out, but one thing is clear: Jabari Parker's talent leaves him no shortage of options.