NEW YORK—He sat at center court, just three rows away from the hardwood, wearing a Yankees hat, a charcoal shirt and a red scarf.
Bruce Springsteen has sold out Madison Square more than 40 times since 1973, but the legendary singer hardly created a stir with his presence at Duke's 80-63 victory over UCLA on Thursday.
For one night in the Big Apple, Springsteen wasn’t “The Boss.”
That title belonged to Duke freshman Jabari Parker, who looked more than at ease amid the lights and luster of the nation’s biggest stage.
In what was arguably his most well-rounded game of the season, Parker tallied 23 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high five assists to help the eighth-ranked Blue Devils improve to 9-2.
“In different sports, there are people who are naturals,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Jabari is a natural. He’s not afraid of the moment. He embraces the moment. He’s been terrific.”
So terrific, in fact, that there is increasing buzz that Parker—and not Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins—could be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft.
Danny Ainge, Kevin Pritchard and Billy King were among the 45 pro scouts and executives that watched Thursday’s game in person. Their presence was unknown to Parker, who insists he’s only concerned with one thing: winning.
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“I really don’t care about the scouts,” Parker said. “The scouts were more important when I was in high school, when I was looking at the college coaches. Now it’s more important that I focus on our team and what we want to accomplish.”
Thursday didn’t mark Parker’s first appearance at Madison Square Garden. Arizona beat Duke here on Nov. 29, a setback the Blue Devils say has motivated them for the past three weeks.
They certainly appeared to be on a mission Thursday, especially on defense. No. 22 UCLA entered the game ranked third in the nation in scoring with 89.1 points per game. But it only mustered 63 against Duke and was outscored 43-26 in the second half.
“We had a bitter taste in our mouth from the last time we were here,” point guard Quinn Cook said.
Cook turned in a banner effort with 14 points, five assists and eight steals. The Blue Devils also got a boost from Rasheed Sulaimon, who scored eight points after averaging just 3.5 in his last seven games.
Still, no player could snatch the limelight from Parker.
Parker scored in just about every way imaginable Thursday, hitting three-pointers, mid-range jumpers, dunks in transition and traditional three-point plays. Yet it never felt as if he was single-handedly trying to take over the game by forcing shots or hogging the ball.
Parker entered averaging 22 points a game and has scored at least 15 points in each of Duke’s 11 contests. He had 27 and 19 points, respectively, against marquee opponents Kansas and Arizona.
Asked about his knack for playing his best in high-profile games, Parker said: “These are the games that are going to shape and mold me as a player. I have to show up for my team in order for us to do well and for me to get better.”
About 75 percent of the 15,410 fans who flocked to Madison Square Garden Thursday were Duke fans, and Parker made sure they were entertained.
At one point in the second half, cameras captured Springsteen pumping his arm after a Parker dunk. A New Jersey resident, Springsteen attended the game with his daughter Jessica, a student at Duke.
Other celebrities in attendance included New York Knicks players Tyson Chandler and Tim Hardaway Jr. Their All-Star teammate, Carmelo Anthony, wasn’t in the building. But his name came up when UCLA coach Steve Alford was asked about Parker during his postgame press conference.
“There’s a lot of Melo in him,” Alford said. “He can stretch you to the three-point line, he can drive the basketball and create space off the dribble to get jump shots and he can take you to the post.
“You don’t see a lot (of guys) that are this polished 10 or 11 games into their freshman year.”
Pleased as he is with his performance thus far, Parker said he still has a “long way to go.” He said his biggest goal is to improve defensively, adding that Krzyzewski harps on him about that part of his game each day in practice.
“You can never learn too much,” Parker said. “That’s what a wise man told me. I’m just trying to stay poised and hungry to learn everyday.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JasonKingBR.
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