Of course it was destined to fail. How could it not. Two 18 year olds were exalted. One was a Canadian teenager. The other was a Mormon priest. They were both compared to past college greats: Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony. But Davis, Rose and Carmelo led their teams to the championship game when they were freshman. They were spectacular and iconic. Davis won the title against Kansas. Rose lost in overtime to Kansas. Carmelo beat Kansas. This was the template for Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. And yet, in spite of the hype and the fame and the circus atmosphere surrounding them, Wiggins and Parker had not played a single game. They were still raw players. They were entering the most pressurized college programs in the country where the demands and the expectations were unrealistic at best. But that did not stop the hype machine. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were the next wave. The new Kobe and Lebron. Until, that is they begin to play. Wiggins was inconsistent but a good defender. Parker was not explosive. With praise hanging over their head they reached the NCAA tournament and March Madness. Then they reminded everyone what madness really was. They were not great players at all. They had just turned 19.
In all of the deconstruction of Kansas’ loss it was clear Andrew Wiggins did not take enough shots, only six in the game. He made spectacular moves but could not finish nor did he get to the line. Even with all of that, the loss of his teammate, Kansas center, Joel Embid, had a greater impact. A wing player needs a big man. Kansas needed Embid in the paint as a rim protector. But Embid has been suffering through back ailments. It was a different circumstance for Jabari Parker who got into foul trouble early against Mercer and never recovered his rhythm. By the time he reentered the game Mercer’s confidence was sky high; it was too late then. Duke was nothing more than a three point shooting team that could not make shots. After the game Parker said his time at Duke felt incomplete. Of that he was telling the truth. At Duke he did not accomplish what he thought he would. It was not failure but it was not success either.
The one and done rule has damaged college basketball and at the same time it has cast a glimmer of light upon college basketball. In one very real way it has saved the sport from itself. Instead of glamour freshman grabbing the spotlight in a heartless tournament, it is the three and four year players who are seasoned that continue on. For many of them this will be it, their last hurrah and unlike their more famous peers, they will take jobs in the real world. But to understand how badly skewed it is against phenomenal players, take a look at what they have done in the tournament the last few years. Anthony Bennett, the #1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft never got to the Sweet Sixteen. Neither did Tristan Thompson who was drafted fourth in 2011. Victor Oladipo, the #2 pick in 2013 lost in the Sweet 16. As did Ben McLemore, the #7 pick that same year, and Kyrie Irving, the #1 pick in 2011. Bradley Beal, the #3 pick in 2012, lost in the Elite Eight. As did Dion Waiters and Derrick Williams, the #2 pick in 2011. And they haven’t been any better in the NBA either, these 19 and 20 year old players. None have been to the playoffs. All of their teams will be back in the lottery this year. So what was gained by their mad dash out of school, these over hyped NBA talents. They became richer, that’s one thing. But their NBA teams are not better. Their college teams were not better. Watching them fail, we are not better.
The foundation of every sport is to rid each player of their individual selfishness and get them to play as a team. This is hard to do with players who still talk about their prom dates. Coach K’s most frequent criticism of his players youth is that they don’t communicate with one other. The Duke freshmen and sophomores had not played together long enough to relate to one another instinctively. At the end of the Duke/Mercer game there was a play Mercer ran that was so crisp in its efficiency it was clear they had run it multiple times with accuracy. A Mercer player leaked out and the inbounder threw a long pass that was caught in stride, surprising the Duke defender. Coach K, when he spoke of Mercer, called them men. Which was to imply that his team were not men. Of course Coach K would know having coached men for two years in the Olympics. Sadly he said, “I don’t know what team I will have next year.”
Talent is a very specific thing. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker are not immune. They are talented players. But that is not even the question. It is this: how do they perform under stress? How do they execute when everything is on the line? Interesting to note that of all the players that were hyped in September, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embid, Marcus Smart, the only player to make it to the Sweet Sixteen was the least talked about- Julius Randle. He played a smart game against undefeated Wichita State. He was not spectacular but he was smart and he relied on his teammates. He did not succumb to the pressure. He had 13 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 1 blocked shot.
And so there will be one more year. The national champion will not have the #1 NBA draft pick. The National Champion will have players that play as a team. Kentucky is a young team that may get there through the tough love of their coach John Calipari and the maturity of their players who have struggled this year. It may be the seniors of Michigan State. Or the underdog Bruins or Wildcats. But for Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker there will be no Carmelo Anthony moment where they hold the trophy. There will be no Anthony Davis smiles and hugs for being the best in college basketball. This much is clear. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker are not the best players in college basketball, just the most talented. Where all of that takes them is unclear. The fan bases and organizations of the worst teams in the NBA are hoping for their development.
All sports is a story told from multiple perspectives. In some cases it is a fairy tale. You need the believers. You need the dreamers. You need the wide eyed. Sometimes the story ends painfully. And sometimes the story is not over, not for a long, long time. All parents know: it takes awhile for a boy to become a man. He has to fail and then he has to succeed and along the way he has to learn things. Andrew and Jabari have time on their side. But the problem is the NBA. It does not have time on its side. It does not have patience.