Jabari Parker has taken some attention from the "why isn't Andrew Wiggins jumping over dudes and averaging a billion points per game" movement with his own stretch of relatively average numbers in the new year.
Struggling is a strong word, and I'm not ready to go there yet, but Parker has been nowhere near as efficient in the first week of 2014 as he was to start the season.
Parker's season can be separated now into three phases.
There was the "oh my gosh he's the best thing since Kevin Durant" phase, when he scored 20-plus in the first seven games.
Then, over the next six games, he was really good but not superhuman good.
And that brings us to the final phase: the games against Notre Dame (a loss) and Georgia Tech. Both have led to columns wondering what's wrong with Parker like this one, this one and the one you're currently reading.
|Jabari Parker's Three Phases|
|2-point FG%||3-point FG%||PPG|
|First 7 games||.597||.609||23.4|
|Next 6 games||.500||.286||18.8|
|Last 2 games||.250||.143||9.5|
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has done a nice job protecting Parker, and if you click on that first link above, he has a great quote about how Parker, Wiggins (Kansas) and Julius Randle (Kentucky) are just kids who have never played at this level.
Whether it's fair or not, this is the era we're in. When a guy starts the season like Parker did, everyone is going to watch because they want to witness greatness. And when he doesn't provide greatness, there has to be a reason for that, right?
The reason: Scouting reports.
Parker is in a shooting slump, and dealing with that for the first time can affect a player's confidence. But Notre Dame and Georgia Tech's defensive game plans against him deserve some credit, too.
One of the reasons Parker was so dang hard to stop early on is because there wasn't a book on how to defend him, and he is an extremely versatile offensive weapon. He can shoot outside, he can drive, he can pull up and he can score with his back to the basket. Making matters worse for his opponents, there wasn't any tape to show them what was coming.
Now, there is tape and there are some numbers that indicate "this is how you guard Parker."
It begins and ends with two keys.
1. Crowd his air space.
Parker is shooting 53.7 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), and he's actually been better guarded (56.7 percent) than unguarded (45.5 percent).
If you dissect his shot closely, however, there is a difference between a lot of his makes and misses.
First, let's take a look at Parker's form on a three he made against UCLA and notice how he goes almost straight up and down.
That's the perfect jump shot. Parker has his feet underneath him and he's balanced.
Now, take a look at two recent shots that Parker missed. Pay attention to how closely he is guarded and look at his right foot.
Notice a difference?
Parker has a tendency to kick his foot out when he's closely guarded—similar to Michael Jordan's patented fade-away jumper. Sometimes he makes these shots, but usually when he misses badly, this is what his follow-through looks like. He's not balanced and has more of an arc in his back.
Give Parker the chance to catch in rhythm with space, and he's going to make more than he misses. Crowd him, and he'll try to give himself space with that leg kick.
The other reason to crowd Parker on spot-ups is to get him to put the ball on the floor. Remember, he's a 53.7 percent shooter on the catch-and-shoot, but when he's forced to put the ball on the floor off a spot-up, he has scored just seven points on 17 possessions, per Synergy.
That's not a huge sample size, but given how good Parker's numbers are across the board, that's about the only place where he's been below average. And that leads us to the second key in defending the Duke freshman.
2. Push him off his spot and don't reach.
What makes NBA scouts drool over Parker is not just that he's a good scorer and can create for himself off the dribble, but that he also is comfortable scoring with his back to the basket.
Parker has scored 52 points on 46 post-ups (1.13 points per possession), per Synergy. Those are strong numbers.
What makes Parker so effective in the post is that he does a good job of sealing off defenders, who often react by reaching when the ball is entered into the post. Parker has such good feel that he'll recognize this and know which shoulder he can easily score over with the defender out of position. He doesn't really have to make a move; he just makes a quick turn.
Notre Dame and Georgia Tech's defenders both did a good job of pushing Parker off the spot where he wanted the ball, and once it was passed his way, they did not reach and were in position to defend.
Here's an example where Andre Dawkins set a screen for Parker, hoping to set him up on the left block.
Georgia Tech's Daniel Miller blocked Parker's path and forced Parker out to near the three-point line. Miller is in perfect guarding position when Parker catches it.
Parker ended up trying to drive baseline on this play, and Miller was able to stay between Parker and the basket and force a miss. Parker has had his most success on drives when he's able to go by defenders or at least keep them on his hip.
How Parker can get back on track
These two keys are not easily executed. If it was that simple to slow Parker, he would keep "struggling" the rest of the season.
Parker is talented enough and has enough feel for the game that he'll come up with counters to combat some of the strategies that have been successful against him. That's what great scorers do.
We should also expect Coach K to employ some new wrinkles to get Parker in space. Once the budding star knocks down a couple jumpers and gets his confidence back, all will be back to "Parker is one of the greatest freshmen ever."
In Kevin Durant's freshman season at Texas, he, like Parker, had a streak of seven games at the beginning of the season when he scored at least 20 points every night out. In his eighth and ninth games, he scored 10 points and 11 points, respectively. For the rest of the season, Durant dropped at least 20 points in 23 of his final 26 games.
That's what the current greatest scorer in the world did.
Parker is not Durant, but he's the closest thing in college basketball that we've seen since. Durant bounced back from a mini-slump. Parker will bounce back from his. Guys that talented never seem to "struggle" for long.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.