Don King could not have set it up better than this.
The dream scenario in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes for college basketball promoters (read ESPN) may have been Wiggins picking North Carolina, where he could have matched up against Jabari Parker and Duke at least twice.
But Wiggins gave us the next-best thing by picking Kansas, and he gave basketball fans (pro or college) a reason to pay close attention to a college game in early November.
Tuesday night at the Champions Classic is not Magic vs. Bird—at least, not yet—but it's as built-up a November matchup between two college players as we've had in a long time. The winner could become the early favorite for the Naismith Award and could also convince the pro scouts he's the No. 1 pick (in that sense, Wiggins has more to lose).
We might have to wait five years to really know whether the actual thing was worth the hype, but let's take a look real quick at how we got here.
In May of 2012, at the end of his junior year, Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, identified as the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.
Then this Andrew Wiggins fella from Canada came along, decided in October of last year to reclassify from the 2014 class to 2013 and, in the process, took over the spot as the top prospect in that class.
This would have been like James deciding 11 years ago he wanted to graduate a year early, thereby knocking Carmelo Anthony out of his spot as the top player in the Class of 2002 and then matching up against Anthony and Syracuse in an early-season game to see who was really the best. (I realize in this dream scenario that David Stern would have had to implement the age limit a few years earlier.)
Wiggins, like Parker, has now had his own Sports Illustrated cover with an equally pressure-packed narrative: taking the torch from Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning at Kansas.
So, who's better?
No matter what happens Tuesday night, realize this: One game is not enough to decide who the better player is or will be.
But I'm about to upset Kansas fans with a way-too-small sample-size observation from the one regular-season game each star has played: Parker's transition to the college game will be easier than Wiggins'.
It's not just that Parker had the more impressive debut—scoring 22 points compared to 16 for Wiggins—Parker's game is more advanced and ready-made for college at this stage in their development.
Both coaches are trying to restructure their offenses to highlight both players' best attributes, but this is an easier task for Mike Krzyzewski than it is for Bill Self.
For one, by playing Parker at power forward and center, Coach K has pretty much guaranteed that Parker will have a mismatch every game unless the opposing coach wants to adjust his lineup to play small ball as well. Even if that's the case, at 6'8", it's tough to find a wing defender with enough size to defend Parker when he goes to the post. (Kansas actually has the personnel to go small because of Wiggins, but Self could be bullish on Tuesday about sitting his bigs.)
Duke's coaches suggested in the offseason that they would use an extreme small-ball lineup that included Parker at the 5 and wing Rodney Hood as the 4, and Coach K used that lineup for 14 minutes, six seconds against Davidson.
The position doesn't really matter for Parker when it comes to his role. No matter who is guarding the freshman, Coach K is feeding him the ball in a variety of ways. On Friday, he was used as a screener to eventually free him up in space. He posted up. And then a majority of his touches came out of a very NBA-like setup where Parker started on the elbow and got the ball for a simple iso.
This is the easiest action for which to game-plan, but Parker, like a pro, is extremely difficult to defend in these spots. It's also hard to run a double-team at him—look at how well the Blue Devils space the floor. They also surround Parker with four capable shooters.
Out of this set, Parker started the game with a jumper from the elbow. He later hit a face-up three. He found Matt Jones on a cut to the basket when Davidson's defense got caught ball-watching. And he hit a step-back jumper (in the clip below). Have fun defending that.
Self would ultimately like to feature Wiggins in a similar fashion. This summer, KU's coaches studied how NBA teams post their guards, and they're already trying to get Wiggins involved from the blocks.
The issue is that Wiggins has had a hard time shielding off defenders to give his teammates an easy target. His off-the-ball movement could be one of the biggest areas he needs to grow. Too often, he simply floats around the three-point line waiting for the ball to swing his way. Parker, on the other hand, moves with a purpose, and that's to get the ball and score.
There is a reason, however, that Wiggins took over the spot as the "next big thing." His speed, size and athleticism is otherworldly, and his skill level is advanced enough that his ceiling is extremely high—assuming his game evolves. And he's 18; it should evolve.
Who will be the better college basketball player?
Wiggins is a lot like former Kentucky big man Anthony Davis. Davis rarely dominated with scoring. He scored 20-plus points in his college debut, and it took him 14 more games to top 20 again. He was in single digits four times during that span.
But Davis was such a rare athlete for his size that he became the best weapon in college basketball two years ago. This season, his second in the NBA, he's averaging 21.7 points per game for New Orleans. His offensive game is beginning to mature, and he's learned how to best take advantage of his elite athleticism.
Parker is a pretty good athlete himself, but his game is closer now to what he will be in March in two years than what Wiggins will become.
It's also possible that Wiggins has been holding back. He made his mark in the summer of 2012 when he dominated a matchup with Kentucky's Julius Randle, and it could be that great competition is what drives the Kansas freshman.
"At the beginning of the year, I felt he (Wiggins) was much more laid-back," Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe told The Lawrence Journal-World. "He's starting to understand he's going to have to start doing more, start showing more. I feel everybody (nationally) is going to be against him. We are on his side. He has to prove to the world he is the best player."
The good news is: We don't have to wait long to find out who is the best right now.