When Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker played each other in the first week of the season, it looked like the start of something big. The NCAA was supposed to be a formality for the two freshmen stars, a one-year layover before the NBA draft. Duke and Kansas were supposed to meet again in the Final Four, not lose in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Wiggins and Parker, for all their talent, have a long way to go. The road to stardom is not smooth.
In many ways, they were both were victims of the hype machine that has enveloped the sport. As freshmen, they were first-team All-Conference selections in two of the best conferences in the country. Wiggins averaged 17 points and six rebounds a game on 45 percent shooting while Parker averaged 19 points and nine rebounds a game on 47 percent shooting. Nor were they putting up empty stats on bad teams - Kansas had a 25-10 record and a Big 12 title while Duke was 26-9.
Nevertheless, while the Jayhawks were a No. 2 seed and the Blue Devils were a No. 3 seed, both teams had serious issues coming into the Tourney. Kansas never got consistent point guard play or outside shooting from their other guards and they had no replacement for Joel Embiid when he went down at the end of the season. Duke had similar holes at PG and C - Quinn Cook lost the PG job halfway through the season and they were starting a 6’9 210 PF (Amile Jefferson) upfront.
The NCAA Tournament, like the NBA playoffs, has a way of exposing every hole on your roster. In their first-round loss to Mercer, Duke could not match up with Daniel Coursey, a 6’10 220 center who had 17 points on 7-12 shooting. Kansas, after barely scraping by Eastern Kentucky in the first round, fell to Stanford in the second. They had no answer for Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell upfront and they shot 5-of-16 from three, allowing Stanford to sit in a zone.
It wasn’t a matter of bad match-ups either - there were systemic issues on both rosters that were going to be exploited at some point in the Tourney. Mercer was run out the gym in the second round by Tennessee, an 11-seed who played in the First Four. Stanford is a middling Pac-12 team without a PG - there’s no guarantee they get by Dayton in the Sweet 16. The issues on Kansas and Duke went way deeper than Wiggins and Parker, so it’s unfair to blame them for the loss.
That said, neither one of them had a good showing in the biggest games of their young career. Parker had 14 points and seven rebounds on 4-for-14 shooting; Wiggins had four points and four rebounds on 1-of-6 shooting. If their teams were going to make the Sweet 16, they needed more from their best players. They needed more points, but they also needed more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. If Wiggins and Parker aren’t scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game.
Charles Barkley talked about it in the postgame show - even the greatest scorers have nights when their shot isn’t falling. Kevin Durant shoots 51 percent from the field this season, which means he still misses every other shot he takes. He was even more accomplished than Wiggins and Parker at Texas, but he lost in the second round of the Tourney as well. Assists are the biggest difference between Durant at 18 and 25 - he averaged 1.3 a game in college and he is at 5.6 now.
A great basketball player makes his teammates better. When Durant is hot, the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t just getting points from him, they are getting points from the other four players on the floor. When Durant is cold, he can focus on drawing double teams and creating open shots for everyone else. That’s how a scorer gets back into rhythm - by letting the game come to them. When you keep making the extra pass, eventually the defense will stop sending help.
That was the problem for Wiggins and Parker this weekend. When their shot wasn’t going in, neither had a Plan B they could go to. If you miss shots, the solution shouldn’t be to keep shooting. That way lies the path of Carmelo Anthony. Stanford and Mercer weren’t AAU teams - they played team basketball on both ends of the floor. No one can consistently beat a set defense 1-on-5 - not Kevin Durant, not LeBron James and certainly not Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins.
The higher the level of basketball, the more individual talent starts to equalize. At the AAU and high school levels, Wiggins and Parker could take over whenever they felt like it. There’s nothing the average 18-year-old basketball player can do to stop a 6’8 200 SG with elite athleticism, or a 6’9 250 PF with the ability to shoot and handle like a guard. At the college level, you can’t beat a good defense with just the drive or the shot; you have to beat them with the pass too.
That’s what the third member of the hyped troika of freshman figured out on Sunday. While Julius Randle only had 13 points in Kentucky’s win over Wichita State, he had a career-high six assists. Instead of forcing the issue against an undersized team that packed the paint, Randle patiently played out of the high post, surveying the floor and hitting open shooters. Kentucky doesn’t win if they don’t go 8-for-14 from long range and Randle’s passing created a lot of those shots.
To win in March, you have to move the ball and play defense. If Kentucky is going to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, Randle will have to shut down Montrezl Harrell, keep him off the boards and take some of the playmaking pressure off the Harrisons. You win as a team and you lose as a team - a basketball team is only as strong as its weakest link. Wiggins, Parker and Randle all had more turnovers than assists this season; they weren’t making anyone else better.
You don’t have to be a great athlete to pass the ball. Passing, more than any of the other phases of the game, is mental. A great passer thinks the game - instead of reacting to the defense, they anticipate it. They see 2-3 moves ahead, making the pass before the other player is even open. They play at their own pace and they play under control; the defense can’t speed them up or force them to take difficult shots. That’s the next step for both Wiggins and Parker.
Wiggins turned 19 in February and Parker turned 19 in March - they are the farthest things from finished products, on and off the court. College is supposed to be a learning experience and neither one is likely to go back to school, so you just hope they learned something in this last year. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know where their journeys will take them, but I can make this prediction - neither is ever going to win an NBA title averaging 1.5 assists a game.