SALT LAKE CITY — For someone Sports Illustrated called the best high school player since LeBron James, Jabari Parker was certainly low key on his first NBA visit to Salt Lake.
That can happen when you’ve been a star since middle school. The business of media gets old.
Last season, when the Milwaukee Bucks played in Utah, he was out with an injury.
Parker grew up in Chicago, where he gained considerable acclaim. Because he is LDS, there was widespread speculation he would play college basketball at BYU. But as every card-carrying, churchgoing Cougar fan knows, that didn’t happen.
On Thursday he was asked if he ever came close to signing with the Cougars. He shook his head and smiled.
“No,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I was never ... ”
You could have fooled people around here.
Expectations rise among Cougar fans whenever a top LDS recruit shows up on the radar. (For reference see football player Mique Juarez.) But when BYU goes go up against Duke, it’s not a fair fight. Basketball big man Chris Burgess chose Duke in 1997, prompting then-coach Roger Reid to privately complain it had disappointed millions of Mormons. In late 2013, five-star Lone Peak recruit Frank Jackson verbally committed to BYU, but switched to Duke.
Parker’s signing ended one of the more overcooked sagas in college basketball history. He played one year with the Blue Devils, averaging 19 points and eight rebounds — good enough to make him the second pick of the 2014 NBA draft. This season he has started 45 games, averaging 11 points and five rebounds. He’s not all the way back, but he says progress is steady.
With that backdrop, Parker arrived in Utah on Thursday for the Bucks’ two-hour practice. It apparently was like practice anywhere else. When a TV reporter asked “what’s it like to be here this week” Parker said, “As long as we get a win, that’s all that matters to me; that’s all I’m focused on.”
Asked if he ever wishes he had never been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school player, he said, “Uh-uh. I have no regrets in my life.”
You mean he never overate on Thanksgiving?
Living up to being Jabari Parker pays well (he’ll make $5 million this season), but it isn’t the easiest gig. Sports Illustrated chronicled everything about him, including early-morning LDS seminary classes. The next LeBron? That’s serious pressure, especially since Andrew Wiggins probably deserved the title. This year Wiggins is averaging 20 points and four rebounds with the Timberwolves.
Either way, Parker handled his recruitment with composure. Katie Couric shot hoops with him. He met Michelle Obama, hung with Derrick Rose and knew numerous NBA players through his dad, a former pro. But he remained humble, going so far as to tell his parents not to unduly worry about his recruitment, he could handle it.
Which he did.
But things got harder in the pros. Twenty-five games into his NBA career, his knee gave way. He now goes up against former high school and college stars every night. Is it everything he thought?
“Yeah,” he said without elaborating.
There were more questions about possible local ties. For instance, does he stay in touch with his cousin, Salt Lake golfer Tony Finau?
“Naw, I don’t.”
Is Salt Lake any different to him than visiting any other city?
“I have few friends, a couple relatives, but no family,” he said.
He won’t put Charles Barkley out of business.
In his defense, Parker is still only 20. Most young men at that age are honing their video-game skills. Instead, he’s trying to resurrect the Eastern Conference’s third-worst team.
As the practice broke up and players wandered toward the team bus, Parker didn’t look as much like the next LeBron as an average NBA player. Truthfully, that might not bother him. His coach, Jason Kidd, calls him a great person and “a guy who comes to work every day.”
In some ways, that alone might be a refreshing change.
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