May 14, 2012

Can MSU sign Jabari Parker, the nation's No. 1 player?

Jabari Parker had just played his fourth game of the day, and his fifth in 24 hours at an AAU tournament in Indiana. Looming was the potential to play three more games the next day, starting at 9:30 a.m.

After the fourth game, an exhausted Parker sat on the bench a minute or so longer than his Mac Irvin Fire teammates. He took an extra drink of water. Drew in an extra deep breath.

He was about to get up and walk his sore legs to the door, get a shower, some food, some sleep, before beginning again the next morning.

But just before Parker stood up, a Fort Wayne 14-year-old approached him.

"Can I get a picture with you, Jabari!?" he asked.

"Sure," Parker said, without pausing.

The youngster's mother had a camera in her hand, standing a few feet away. Parker put his arm around the kid, and smiled directly into the camera, working to give the kid as good a photo as possible.

Then there was another photo request. And another.

This is Jabari Parker, the main target of Michigan State's recruiting campaign of 2013. He is becoming a big enough star that teen-agers from a neighboring state bring their mothers with them for a shot at a photo opp. And he has become a big enough star to handle it.

"I just have to give my time to those kids, because once upon a time I was one of them," said Parker, who is a junior at Chicago Simeon High and ranked the No. 1 player in America in the class of 2013 by "If you give them your time it can really make an impact on their day and their lives.

"I used to get my picture with Derrick Rose and Lebron back when he was in high school. The list goes on. And each of those guys had an impact on me. I looked up to a lot of guys, and patterned my game after a lot of guys and also their character. They gave some time up for me when I was a kid, so why shouldn't I do the same?"

Unlike past No. 1-ranked players, Parker doesn't arrive at the gym with an entourage. He doesn't have a buffer zone solar system of handlers and middle men hovering around him, discouraging autograph seekers and regulating media contact.

He's just a guy in the gym. An approachable guy.

"It happens pretty often," Parker said of autograph and photo seekers. "At the beginning of the season, and even a little bit last year, I started getting recognition and notoriety so there was a lot of attention and I guess you could say fame coming my way."

There will be more. At some point, he will have to start saying no. But right now, it's all still pretty new to the Chicago teen-ager. And he has just enough energy to accommodate those fans, as well as media, who volley the same questions at him, day after day, week after week, month after month, after each game.

"What are your favorite schools? Do you have a new leader? When do you think you'll make a decision?"

Parker even has patience and energy for them.

"People are curious, so I understand that and I won't be mad about it," he said.

But how can he stand the same questions, week after week when in actuality, nothing has changed in his recruitment for several months?

"Well, I realize it's probably going to increase from now on, get worse," he said.When I come out of high school and when I get to college there is going to be a lot of media, so what I'm doing right now is preparing me for what it's going to be like, doing the interviews in college."

After one of the games in Fort Wayne at the Spiece Run-n-Slam All-Star Classic, the tired Parker was dripping with perspiration while standing for an 8-minute interview with a fledgling Chicago web site. The interview garnered only about 400 views within the first week after it was posted on the internet. Parker's time is worth so much more. But he tries to accommodate them all, big and small when at the gym.

But at home, don't try to phone him. That goes for college coaches too.

"I really don't get a chance to talk to them much," Parker said of college coaches. "My parents handle that for me."

Tom Izzo on the phone? Coach K? Doesn't matter. Jabari passes the phone to mom and dad.

"I'm glad they can do that for me because it gets nerve-racking sometimes with all these coaches blowing up your phones," he said.

Parker would rather focus on his game, which has taken on more strength, to-the-rim explosiveness in the last 12 months.

The 6-foot-8 Parker has grown an inch since last summer, when some regarded him as the top player at the LeBron James Skills Academy, even better than the nationally-ranked seniors who were a year older.

He has more power at the rim, leaps more effortlessly, and moves faster in the open court. The slick medium range game he displayed last summer drew comparisons to a young Grant Hill. Now he is blending in some Carmelo Anthony elements. He can stop and jack the 3-pointer with accuracy, or weave through traffic to finish with grace or power.

He worked on a turn-around jumper from the high post last week at Fort Wayne. He missed more of those than he made. He knows he is not great.

"I still have a lot of room for improvement," he said. "So I need to go after that and I can't be complacent. It (my game) is okay. It could be a little bit more molded to be a little bit better."

All he wants to do is polish his game, and help his summer team win. The Mac Irvin Fire, a national Nike powerhouse based out of Chicago, is in line to advance to the national EYBL finals at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. in mid-July.

With a state title and a Mr. Basketball award already in his trophy case, Parker would like to win more brass in his last summer with his Chicago-area friends.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "It's one of my top priorities right now because it is my last go-round, my last chance to play AAU. You just have to go out with a big bang."

Parker says he has taken one unofficial visit to Michigan State. That was for a football game in the fall of 2010. The Spartans have been a part of his unofficial lead pack ever since.

Last summer at the LeBron James camp, he told that his early top five were Kansas, Washington, Duke, Illinois and Michigan State.

He indicates that no school has surged to the very front, and a few others might be creeping in. Northwestern, DePaul and Ohio State are working to get into the lead pack.

"I don't really have one leader," Parker said, giving that answer for at least the one hundredth time this spring. "There are probably like 10, at the most.

"But things are pretty much the same as they were. Really, nothing has changed. I'm just looking at every school and evaluating them."

But he won't truly begin to put those schools under the microscope until the fall.

"Official visits," he said. "That will be very important to me. That's when things will have to start to change. It will give me a chance to get used to those programs and see them up close like I would if I was a player there."

When asked what he likes about Michigan State at this juncture, he said: "Because they are family-oriented. I like their program, especially their coach. Izzo is a very honest guy. He is looking to push you to the limit."

And Duke?

"A lot of the same things. They have a good coach, a good system and they always win."

Duke and Michigan State seem likely to get an official visit. He seems likely to visit more.

Parker says he doesn't have a time table to make a decision. If he's ready in the fall, it will come in the fall. If he isn't sure, he'll sign in the spring. Right now, he isn't sure when he'll be sure.

Parents handling the phone calls? And he's unsure when he'll have his mind made up? What is this? A genuine, old fashioned, honest recruitment with a student-athlete taking his time to make sure he gets it right?

Something like that. And the often-seedy world of college basketball recruiting seems better for it.

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