UCLA Basketball: Breaking Down Tony Parker's Growth During 2013-2014 Season

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UCLA Basketball: Breaking Down Tony Parker's Growth During 2013-2014 Season
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

In reference to Tony Parker of the UCLA Bruins, the surprising Associated Press headline read: "UCLA Beats Stanford 91-74 Behind Parker."

It was a true headline. Parker netted a career-high 22 points to go with seven rebounds, tying Kyle Anderson for a UCLA game high. 

It had not been a quiet performance either, with statistics imperceptibly piling up over 28 minutes—but a Hollywood run on a night when Jordan Adams got 19, and both Anderson and Norman Powell scored 13. 

Don MacLean, both UCLA and the Pac-12's all-time leading scorer, became effusive during the Pac-12 Network's television broadcast. 

"Obviously when you're playing a game like he is tonight they are going to keep him in," said MacLean during the first half as Parker began hammering it inside.

"Tony Parker is more active tonight than I have seen him all season and really impacting the game in a positive way."

This marks the second game this year that Parker has been the Bruin's first star. On Dec. 28—after beating the Crimson Tide 75-67 at Pauley Pavilion—the LA Daily News headline read: "UCLA, Tony Parker outlast Alabama basketball."

In that game, over just 19 minutes of playing time, Parker scored a team-high 16 points, though only managed to grab five rebounds. But in the final minute he blocked Retin Obasohan's shot, got fouled, made both free throws and collected two-fifths of his rebounds. 

These were the two biggest games of the sophomore's career, but by no means what Parker has led UCLA fans to expect on a game-by-game basis. The fact they exist at all has begged the question: Is Tony Parker slowly becoming what the Bruins expected him to be as a 5-star high school player?

If he is, then the season prospectus has gone bearish to bullish, to use a stock market phrase. If he is not, then UCLA is stuck in that dangerous place where an off-shooting game exposes it to a pounding on the glass and a destruction on the interior that almost guarantees defeat.

First, each of great games had a mitigating element to tamp down enthusiasm and point toward the more inconsistent parts of Parker's game. Against Stanford he committed four personal fouls, nearly disqualifying himself. 

He is second on the team in fouls per game at nearly three and has been limited to 19 minutes nightly—less than half the game—predominately because his footwork and awareness gets him out-positioned and he compensates by trying to hack his way back in. 

Parker has fouled out three times, played with four fouls in another three games and had his playing time limited in four more with three personal fouls. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

This is not because he isn't a good enough athlete to defend without fouling, but because he has showed a steady confusion in the pick-and-roll rotations and while establishing his defensive position in the blocks. This is an area Parker must show growth in—really just intelligence and focus—to be the rugged, buffalo-like force he shows the promise of.  

Against Alabama, Parker was his best when the moment called for it—a wonderful attribute if it's consistently there—but collected only five rebounds on the night. He is 6'9'' and a mighty-strong 250 pounds to only rebound five times a game. 

UCLA is a poor rebounding team, ranking in the 100s in several crucial categories. The team desperately needs Parker to do work on the glass and hold down the blocks like a coastal fortification if it is going to survive through the elimination games.

Anderson was quoted in the Daily News article after the Alabama game about Parker's rebounding.

"He played very well down the stretch, I must admit," he said. "I'm still mad at him for five rebounds. That's unacceptable. He played well down the stretch and was a big key to our win, but five rebounds is unacceptable for him."

Parker's season averages are an unbalanced scatter-shot with a single high impact number left hanging above a canyon of lows. He averages only eight points per game but his field goal efficiency is a superb 60.4 percent. He gets 5.26 rebounds a night, a little more than two on offense and just over three on defense, four fewer than the team's point guard.  

He averages less than one assist and one block per game, shoots only two free throws a night (making one) and collects all those personal fouls, which force coach Steve Alford to send him to the bench. 

Leaving out the Alabama game, which was not a big game except if UCLA had lost it, and the game against Stanford, which was a big game because it was within the conference, Parker's numbers in critical spots are abysmal. 

Against Missouri and Duke, both losses, he totaled five points on 1-6 shooting and eight rebounds. He played 32 minutes over both games, slightly more than a single half when his team needed him for four.

In five Pac-12 games before Stanford, he was about as helpful as a giant scarecrow. His best game was against No. 1 Arizona, where he scored 10 points on 3-7 shooting, but was 4-4 from the free-throw line. He also collected eight rebounds and committed only two fouls.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

But against USC—a 34-point UCLA sledgehammering—Parker fouled out with five points and five rebounds in just 10 minutes! He fouled out again against Arizona State in only 14 minutes. He had three points and three rebounds at the moment he was DQ'd.

Against Colorado in Boulder, he had six points, two rebounds and three fouls in 22 minutes. In the loss to Utah, an ugly game for UCLA in Salt Lake City, Parker had four points, two rebounds and two fouls in 16 minutes. He was never anywhere near the rhythm on the floor. 

Where is Tony Parker going? Is it toward college basketball's upper echelons, or down toward obscurity and the dreaded "bust" classification? The probability he stays the same is negligible. 

Parker may be another victim of the high school scouting process, an 18-year-old tagged as a 5-star and signed to a No. 1 recruiting class at one of America's premier basketball schools. He is expected to be immediately one of the dominant players in America until he decides to test himself in professional basketball. 

As likely as that explanation generally sounds, it is hard to fault how the recruiting services interpreted his high school production. Beginning with state freshman of the year in 2009 at Georgia's Miller Grove high school, Parker was an instrumental part of four big-school state championship teams. 

In the 2012 McDonald's All-American game he scored 10 points, collected seven rebounds and blocked two shots. He was a Parade All-American alongside teammates Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad, who was taken in the first round of the NBA Draft after his freshman season. 

In world competition Parker was a champion again, winning two gold medals with USA Basketball's U16 and U17 teams in Mendoza, Argentina and Hamburg, Germany, respectively. 

Parker had earned his bones coming into college, but his progression has run into the tar pits alongside the fleet and powerful level of player he's battling in the Pac-12. Last year there were screamers in the Bruins' more diseased fan camps who put the blame on former coach Ben Howland for the creeping progress. 

But that thesis has been slashed and burned with Parker's performance this season, and never seemed like smart money, anyway. When you look at the NBA you see too many Howland big men to doubt he knew how to coach them. Kevin Love is one of the best players in the league and both Luc Richard M'bah a Moute and Ryan Hollins have been steady contributors over long careers.

Lorenza Mata-Real, another Howland big, is playing good basketball in the Latin American professional leagues. 

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Finally, when you see that Josh Smith—an infamous Howland transfer who was pointed to as a flag-bearer for an inability to keep good players in the program—has been made academically ineligible at Georgetown and will not play the rest of the season, you can be absolutely solid in your belief that Howland was not the fountainhead of the problem

The strange evidence makes a case that Parker, a true sophomore, is developing at his own pace and that outside expectations have once again been crushed by an indifferent reality. 

What direction he heads from this waypoint is an uncertainty I would refuse to bet on at any odds. But the Bruins can be sure that the spot this season's last stand is made depends a lot on how powerful a push Parker's broad shoulders are able to make. 


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