The championship game of the Preseason NIT, played on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, featured two of the top five freshmen in the country: Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon. Adding to the intrigue, both Parker and Gordon are 6'9 combo forwards who defended each other for stretches of the game.
Behind an efficient performance by Gordon, Arizona won 72-66. Parker, meanwhile, struggled at times but still finished with a game-high 19 points. However, because the two star freshman have different roles on their teams, an apples-to-apples comparison of their performance on Friday is difficult.
Parker is Mr. Everything for a Duke team that lost its starting frontcourt to the NBA. Playing out of position at center, he has to carry a huge load on both ends of the floor, anchoring the defense while also being the main hub of their offensive attack.
Early in the game, Parker showcased his athleticism with a block on Gordon that set up a fast break.
Gordon got his revenge on the other end of the floor, where he helped hold Parker to one of his worst performances of the season. At 6'9 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Gordon is one of the only players in the country with the length and athleticism to stay in front of Parker and contest his shot:
You hate to see a player as talented as Parker settling for a contested long two. That shot bails the defense out.
As the first half went on, he became more aggressive, putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. He was able to draw two fouls on Gordon, sending him to the bench:
That call speaks to how difficult it is to man-up Parker. When a guy that big and that fast can handle the ball like he does, it's easy to draw contact and put the refs in a difficult position. Parker averages six free throws a game and shoots 74 percent from the line, a big reason why he's been so efficient.
Without Gordon in the game, Parker moved to the block, where he overpowered some of Arizona's smaller defenders. Plays like this are where you can see the Carmelo Anthony comparisons:
Brandon Ashley, at 6'8 and 230 pounds, is an NBA prospect in his own right. That's bully ball.
And while Parker dominated the basketball for Duke, Gordon operated within the flow of the offense for Arizona. The Wildcats, who start four NBA prospects and a pure PG, have a lot of guys who need the ball in their hands. As a result, Gordon doesn't have nearly as many opportunities to score.
Nevertheless, he finds ways to impact the game. He's a machine on the defensive end, capable of matching up against all five positions on the collegiate level. Here he is on the pick-and-roll, recovering on Rasheed Sulaimon and erasing his shot. Watch how he moves his feet without fouling and then uses his length:
Gordon came into college with a reputation as a dunker, but he's also shown a surprisingly adept touch from deep. He's gone 5-9 from the three-point line so far. He doesn't force shots; he only took one triple against Duke, a wide-open look in the second half:
Gordon finished the game with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. After going scoreless in the first half, it would have been easy for him to get caught up in the 1-on-1 battle and hunt for shots. Instead, he remained patient and consistently made the right basketball play:
That's a 6'9 guy using his ball-handling, passing and vision to set up his center for an easy shot at the rim. Gordon stuffed the stat sheet -- 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal. He didn't make a lot of bad decisions, finishing with 2 missed shots and 1 turnover.
To be fair, if Parker had only 10 points, Duke would have had no chance to win. Nevertheless, if a guy's going to take 21 shots in 40 minutes, he has to do a better job of involving his teammates -- 1 assist on 5 turnovers isn't getting it done. Those numbers invoke the wrong kind of Carmelo comparisons.
Going forward, it's possible Parker won't face someone as talented as Gordon for the rest of the season and vice versa. However, in the NBA, they'll be facing players like themselves on an almost nightly basis. On that level, what separates the great players is the ability to make the game easier for their teammates.
Gonzaga's Big Men
Gonzaga lost Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris to the NBA, but their frontcourt is still loaded with next-level talent. Przemek Karnoswki (7'1, 305 pounds) and Sam Dower (6'9, 255 pounds) are big guys with NBA bodies who know how to score with their back to the basket.
Dower is averaging 15 points on 66 percent shooting and Karnowski is averaging 9 points on 73 percent shooting. As they become more comfortable in featured roles, they are going to be a very difficult match-up for the vast majority of NCAA frontlines.
The question is how much of a role they will get. Gonzaga likes to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton and there doesn't seem to be much of a commitment to playing inside-out.
In order to utilize skilled big men, you have to control tempo, space the floor properly and have the patience to allow them to re-post. In their loss to Dayton in Maui, Karnowski and Dower went 11-14. Everyone else went 15-40.
We'll see if Mark Few makes an adjustment to his offense as the season goes on.
Big Games This Week
Syracuse vs. Indiana (Tuesday)
Will Indiana have a better plan to attack the 2-3 zone than they did in the NCAA Tournament? How will Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams deal with the unorthodox Syracuse defense? And which one will get the defensive assignment on CJ Fair?
UNC vs. Michigan State (Wednesday)
How will Adreian Payne respond to the multiple looks upfront that UNC gives him? Can Marcus Paige score over the top of Keith Appling? Will Gary Harris take advantage of the absence of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald and impose his will on the Tar Heel wings?
Kentucky vs. Baylor (Saturday)
Will Baylor man-up Julius Randle with Isaiah Austin and/or Cory Jefferson? Can those two drag Willie Cauley-Stein out to the perimeter and open up the floor? Will the Harrison twins and James Young be able to exploit the Bears undersized guards?