The tantalizing notion of close friends and fellow Chicago natives Jahlil Okafor and Jabari Parker playing together at Duke next season will not come to fruition.
Parker is leaving a year too soon.
The national freshman of the year announced Thursday that he is forgoing his final three years of eligibility and entering the NBA draft, a decision that has been anticipated since before he ever donned a Duke jersey. Parker detailed his thought process in an essay published by SI.com, explaining that the lure of chasing a title with Okafor and the rest of his Duke teammates next season wasn't strong enough to overcome his desire to begin his NBA career.
"Ultimately, I boiled my decision down to two simple questions," Parker wrote. "Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow as a basketball player? Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow and develop off the court? The answer to both questions is undeniably the NBA.
"My father, Sonny, played in the NBA. I know firsthand that the career span of a pro basketball player is finite. The lucky ones play until their mid-30s. With that perspective, I shrink my professional career with each year that I remain in college. It's ironic, but true."
Though Parker's passion for college and the imminent arrival of a top-ranked recruiting class led to speculation he could buck conventional wisdom, the 6-foot-8 forward's decision ultimately was fairly clear-cut. His polished, versatile, NBA-ready offensive game makes him a near-certain top five pick and a candidate to unseat Kansas freshmen Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid at No. 1
To understand the risks for a potential top five pick returning to school, Parker needs only to study the example of the last player to do so. Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart jeopardized his draft stock during a trying sophomore season in which he shoved a fan, earned a reputation for flopping, struggled to knock down jump shots and failed to lead the Cowboys to an NCAA tournament victory for a second straight year.
Parker led Duke to a 26-9 season and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, becoming the first freshman in school history to lead the team in points (19.1) and rebounds (8.7) per game. He is the fifth one-and-done player under Mike Krzyzewski, joining Corey Maggette (1999), Luol Deng (2004), Kyrie Irving (2011) and Austin Rivers (2012).
Duke would have been the obvious preseason No. 1 had Parker returned for his sophomore season, but the Blue Devils should still be a title contender without him. Even if fellow high-scoring forward Rodney Hood also leaves as expected, Duke will still boast two quality point guards, an array of wing scorers and the most coveted incoming big man in the nation.
One of the biggest questions facing the Blue Devils is whether McDonald's All-American Tyus Jones will seize the starting point guard job from Quinn Cook or whether the freshman and senior will start alongside one-another. It will also be interesting to see if the presence of a true center in Okafor and the development of Marshall Plumlee can solve some of the defensive woes that plagued Duke during the 2013-14 season.
Regardless, the Blue Devils should still be an excellent offensive team built around the potential low-post dominance of Okafor, the slashing of Rasheed Sulaimon and the dribble penetration of Jones and Cook. That's a strong enough core that it tempted Parker to return as the centerpiece and try to make up for Duke's opening-round NCAA tournament loss to Mercer last month.
"The prospect of playing with such a talented big man is pretty tempting," Parker wrote. "Together we could help put up another banner in Cameron."
Ultimately, however, Parker chose to strike while his stock is hot and enter the NBA draft. And while it may be hard to say goodbye to his Duke teammates and to pass on playing with Okafor, that is clearly the most prudent choice.
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