CHICAGO -- Simeon coach Robert Smith has witnessed Jabari Parker affected by all that comes with being Jabari Parker, the player deemed the nation’s No. 1 junior, a likely NBA lottery pick and Derrick Rose’s successor, just once in his career.
It was against Peoria Manual in the Pontiac holiday tournament semifinals on Dec. 30, 2011. For the first half, Parker didn’t look like himself to Smith. Parker was tentative and appeared be nervous before the packed crowd. It almost as if Parker was afraid he wasn’t going to live up to everyone’s expectations.
“I told him at halftime to relax and just be Jabari Parker,” Smith said. “It’s OK if you have a bad game. Those things happen to every player. Every time you go out there, you don’t have to be great. Every time you play, you’re going to be critiqued. Good or bad, that comes with the territory.”
Smith’s words were received and put to use. When Parker returned to the floor for the second half, whatever pressure he had been feeling was relieved, and Parker returned to being exactly what the crowd was there to see.
“I’ve only seen that once where he felt a little nervous, but it didn’t last very long,” Smith said. “He led us in the second half. He made eight points in a row and gave us the lead. He just started dominating the game, blocking shots, rebounding.”
For one half this season, Parker wasn’t great. For 63 others, he was. When you add it up, Parker left no doubt he was the ESPNChicago.com 2011-2012 Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Parker averaged 26 points and nine rebounds and was catalyst behind Simeon being considered the No. 1 team in the country for much of the year and the Wolverines now shooting for their third consecutive state championship this weekend in Peoria.
The buzz around Parker this season was bigger than it had been his first two high school season. Like Rose before him at Simeon, Parker became a must-see player for people this season. Fans needed to witness this player everyone was raving about.
And Parker never disappointed. He hit fade-away jumpers you only see NBA players make. He threw down the monstrous dunks the crowd craved. He put up numbers. Plus, he stayed true to himself. He never got away from his No. 1 goal of winning.
“Jabari Parker took his game from a difference-maker as a sophomore to a true, legitimate superstar as a junior,” said Illinois high school basketball analyst Joe Henricksen, who publishes the City/Suburban Hoops Report. “That's what stood out to me in his overall development as an elite prospect. It's a natural progression for a talent like Parker. With the combination of size, versatility and I.Q., he dominates and impacts games in ways no other player in the state of Illinois is capable of.”
From his skill to his demeanor on the court, Parker also continued to gain respect from opponents this season. Parker plays in a manner that makes it difficult to hate him after he beats you.
“He’s definitely a phenomenal player,” Evanston coach Mike Ellis said after a recent loss to Simeon. “He’s definitely a one-and-done guy if that’s the path of his choice. He’s going to be great NBA player. I think he has a great head on his shoulders. I respect the heck out of that guy. He does it the right away. He doesn’t try to disrespect anybody. I think he’s going to be a phenomenal players next year and obviously quite a few years after that.”
Parker’s game has developed since last year. He made a concerted effort to be more of a leader for Simeon this year. The Wolverines graduated three senior starters from last year’s state championship team, and Parker took it upon himself to make up for their loss in leadership.
“A lot of guys didn’t have experience, so I needed to be there for them,” Parker said. “I did so with my whole mentality, my whole mindset. I really didn’t get in the game as much. You can’t show a lot of emotion because when you do you’ve already lost the battle.”
His father, Sonny Parker, was most impressed by that.
“He showed a lot of leadership,” said Sonny, a former NBA player. “He stepped up and helped his team in any way they wanted him. He’s contributed in so many ways. His mental approach is a whole lot different. He tells me, ‘Dad, you can’t play for me.’ He puts in the work. Nobody is giving him anything.”
Led by Parker, Simeon was tagged the No. 1 team in the country for its 15 games this season before losing to Findlay Prep. The Wolverines have rattled off 16 consecutive wins since that defeat and is now No. 6 in the country.
With Simeon’s high profile and his individual ranking, Parker is often being critiqued and measured by everyone. He admitted it does get to him at times, but it’s not anything he doesn’t want.
“It weighs on me, but I’ll never be complacent,” Parker said. “I’ll always have the hunger to work and improve my skill set. I’m driven by seeing a lot of players in the NBA. That’s my goal. I just want to be a record-breaker and win a lot.
“Being compared to Derrick also drives me. I know if I get better than him or break the records he broke I could be one of the best players to come out of Chicago. I look forward to being one of those players.”
Smith doesn’t think he’s too far off.
“I think if we happen to win state this year and see what happens next year, I don’t think it’ll be even close,” Smith said. “He’s one of the top 5 players to ever play in the state of Illinois right now. It drives him. He wants to be better than Derrick. That’s his ultimate goal.”