College Basketball Nation: Sonny Parker

One of the more fascinating things about the rise of recruiting rankings -- rankings which are hugely informative and helpful for fans and writers like yours truly -- is the seriousness with which the rankees take them.

George Dohrmann’s “Play Their Hearts Out” offers a dialed-in portrait of the intensity with which AAU coaches and many parents approach their sons’ recruiting rankings, beginning in sixth grade, if not earlier. It describes in great detail the obsession AAU coach Joe Keller had with Demetrius Walker’s status as the best player in his class, even when Walker had another four years before he could step on a college campus. There was no loss greater to Keller than the loss of Walker’s top ranking, and his coaching, such as it was, revolved around the advancement of that single, borderline arbitrary goal.

It doesn’t take a behavioral scientist to understand why this could be destructive. It emphasizes the individual over the team, it presents a warped system of self-esteem, and it foists an impossibly high standard on young teenagers who may or may not be equipped to handle it.

But the benefits for coaches are obvious: The higher their player’s ranking, the better their standing in the recruiting world, the more likely they are to receive sponsorships from Nike and adidas, and the more likely they are to lure future top prospects into their AAU programs. The process is cyclical, and all you need is that one breakthrough player, the one kid who changes everything.

Which is why the approach from Jabari Parker and his family is so refreshing. (If it feels like we write that word a lot about Parker, well, it’s not a coincidence.) Per ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers, Parker, the top player in the class of 2013 (who was somewhat questionably dubbed the “best high school player since LeBron James” on the cover of Sports Illustrated this summer), will have an MRI on his right heel and could miss the rest of the crucial July evaluation period, according to Parker’s father.

What does this mean? Not all that much, really. But there have been recent rumblings that Parker could lose his top spot in the class to a handful of contenders (Texas natives Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison being the chief competition) if he sits out the July evaluation period.

To many recruits, losing the No. 1 overall spot in the final summer before senior year would be seen as a disaster. The Parkers, to their immense credit, couldn’t care less:
“He doesn’t have anything to prove,” Sonny said. "He’s the hunted; he’s not the hunter. His school season and health are more important.

“Right now, he’s not caught up in the rankings. He’s so concerned about winning that state championship for a fourth year. That’s more important than the ranking stuff. People are putting it out there because they want something to talk about.”

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, and to some degree, the individual recruiting rankings are a matter of competitive pride. But there’s also something to be said for prioritizing competition, for realizing what really matters, for separating the signal from the noise. If the No. 1 ranking goes to Randle or Harrison because Parker was resting and recovering from an injury -- and why would you risk an injury in summer hoops anyway? -- well, who cares? There isn’t a college coach in the country that would sour on Parker because he isn’t playing this summer. Everyone knows how good he is. What’s the difference if he’s No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 5? He’s still Jabari Parker.

It can’t be easy to ignore this stuff all the time. So many kids are ranked and re-ranked before they ever turn 16. The impulse to top those rankings -- to prove you’re the best in the country, over and over -- must be incredibly high. But there comes a point when you have to take a deep breath and a step back.

Parker’s family has rarely put a foot wrong in the recruitment of their son. Such is the case here. Still, the simple fact that this latest common-sense decision even counts as praiseworthy says all you need to know about the culture of grassroots basketball in the first place. No. 1 vs. No. 2 vs. No. 3. At the end of the day, who cares?
When you're Jabari Parker, the best player in the class of 2013 -- and, according to the cover of Sports Illustrated, "the best high school basketball player since LeBron James" -- it's not easy to live a normal life. Not when college coaches are constantly breathing down your neck. Not when fans are obsessing about your every move. Not when you're a local hero at the age of 17. The world has aligned to guarantee that almost nothing Parker does in the next year of his life -- and probably for many years after that -- will come without heaps of media attention and scrutiny.

But Sonny Parker, Jabari's father, is doing his best to try. Admitting that his son was overwhelmed by all the attention, Sonny Parker told ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers that the family is going to limit Parker's media availability over the summer in an effort to let Parker "continue to be a kid."
"Basketball never stops, so we're getting ready to shut it down for him," Parker's father, Sonny, said. "He just wants to continue to be a kid, watch cartoons, hang out with friends and everything. [...] "It's overwhelming," Sonny said. "It could be a distraction sometimes, because he still has to stay in the same routine. I think the distractions sometimes can get overwhelming.

"He doesn't like a lot of attention. He's managing. With all the interviews, they want to do a book, they want to do a movie, they want to do a documentary, those things. He says, 'Dad, why do they have to follow me to school and church and home and everything?' He's trying to get used to that."

Sonny Parker also made an interesting point about the current mixtape-and-Twitter-driven recruiting media climate:
"I think Jabari is the first (high school) player who has experienced this social media stuff. LeBron (James) and Kobe (Bryant) never experienced that. Jabari can't go to the bathroom without being on Twitter. It's the first time a player of his caliber, you know, he plays a game, gets out of the shower and he's on YouTube."

That's at least partially true: If we're willing to go all the way and buy in to Parker's status as a once-in-a-generation, LeBron James-level destroyer of basketball worlds, then yes, this is the first time a player like that has been enveloped in the modern media landscape. (Obviously, every year brings a new batch of players whose recruitments are watched by thousands from afar; these days, every top-100 recruit is a micro-celebrity in his own right.) But even if YouTube was less of a cultural force when LeBron James was in high school, the level of celebrity James achieved as a six-year-old still outranks anything Parker has had to deal with just yet. The attention is different, more finitely focused. But it's not like we haven't seen it before.

In any case, this is among the reasons why Parker is seen not just as a talented player, but a potentially special one. Many recruits and their families would feed off all the attention. Some would milk it for all it's worth. For Parker, basketball is just one of the many facets of his life, and you can sense that in every interview given by him and his family on the subject of his career. It's a refreshing approach. As Parker embarks on what is sure to be the most challenging year of his life to date, plenty of time away form the spotlight might be just what the doctor ordered.