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Jabari Parker puts on first of likely many great performances at MSG

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

Jabari Parker tied a career high Wednesday, 27 points, and led Duke to the NIT finals. (USATSI)
Jabari Paker tied a career high Wednesday, 27 points, and led Duke to the NIT finals. (USATSI)

NEW YORK -- He just looks different than everyone else on the floor. And I'm not talking about a specific game. He is unalike anyone else in college basketball this year and in most years.

It's not just the way he plays, but how he looks and moves. If that sounds romantic, forgive me, but I'm in love with the way Jabari Parker makes himself and Duke appear this season. The body type, which seems to betray the realism of his talent. The style, which is not groundbreaking yet still seems original. The IQ, knwoing you'll find him on any given offensive play in the right place. He can be just about anywhere inside 30 feet and it looks like he's already staked claim to that spot. It's his.

A play that's worth the memory burn: It was a shot from the elbow halfway through the first half, when Parker dug a pivot into the floor, then fell away at that impeccable angle, drifting off the momentum from his right foot, his off-foot. Swish.

Too good. That's a moved made by plenty on the floor here at Madison Square Garden -- by the millionaires who come in and do it to the Knicks. Parker's first impressive performance, the first of what should be dozens of trips to Madison Square Garden in his life, ended in a win. No. 6 Duke 74, Alabama 64 in the NIT semifinals.

"The team goal was getting a win and that's all that matters," Parker said.

Another moment: Parker pinned on the baseline, underneath the hoop. He spins out of it, leaps in the air, and as he turns he zips out a pass to Tyler Thornton, waiting in the corner and unguarded, because you see Parker's shifted the entire defense already. That one came in the second half, one of those plays that's an afterthought, until you realize pretty much nobody that's 6-8 and 235 pounds can pull that off in college. The fact he makes it look ordinary is what makes it so scary.

"I got a long ways to go and to be sharp in the beginning of the game," Parker said. "I lacked that in the first couple of minutes. Whenever they look at Rodney or look at Q (Quinn Cook), I need to be ready."

You know players are truly special when your eye subconsciously targets in on them every time down the floor. Do you find yourself doing that with Parker? Because I do. I don't find myself doing it yet with Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon. And I saw Gordon play just before Parker on Wednesday.

Only seven games into his career at Duke, Parker (now at 23.6 points, 8.7 rebounds per game) has scored more than 20 points in each game, a feat last achieved by a freshman from some guy named Durant at Texas. Parker's 27 Wednesday night tied a career-best. He was 9 for 12 from the floor and 9-of-10 from the foul line. Parker wasn't perfect. There were five turnovers. But without him and the play of Duke would be entirely different. This team would be good but I'm not certain it'd have a chance to be great.

The 6-1 Blue Devils weren't amazing, but they were good enough to keep the Tide at arm's length and stave off a 12-0 second-half run to end the game with a double-digit deficit. That's a step up from Sunday's home game against Vermont, when Mike Krzyzewski said his team was "awful."

"I have a young group, so they're not accustomed yet to seeing that a team's different from the team they see on tape," Krzyzewski said. "I was really proud of our defensive effort tonight, because we did not play well defensively in our last two games."

The Blue Devils got an unusually bad game from Rodney Hood, who had eight points and fouled out. Krzyzewski said he was proud of the effort around Hood, notably Parker, and said the offense did and should flow through his phenomenal freshman. Parker's teammates combined for 13 assists.

One more Parker special from Wednesday night. There's 5:03 to go in the game, Duke leads by just five after the Tide snip into the lead. Parker sticks, and steps back, and freezes poor Alabama forward Nick Jacobs into granite, right there in front of thousands. Then Parker takes two casual strides and calmly scoops the ball into the hoop, not a soul within six feet of him. It's head-jerking quickness followed by grace.

Again, it doesn't look normal. So it's a play that can come close to illustrating Jabari Parker. Duke's one of a handful of really terrific teams this year, but nobody has anyone like Parker, and I can't remember the last team that did.

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