Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker? It’s not an easy choice

Freshman forwards are at the head of the NBA draft class

All along, it’s been Kansas at the top for Thursday’s NBA draft.

Either cat-quick shot-blocking 7-foot Jayhawks center Joel Embiid was to be the first player selected overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, or his teammate, small forward Andrew Wiggins, would be chosen No. 1. Both are extremely athletic and seen as franchise-changing cornerstones.

A stress fracture to Embiid’s right foot, however, may have changed everything. That injury came after Embiid had a stress fracture in his back that caused him to miss the last six games of the season. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, uncertain whether Embiid will have to miss the entire upcoming season, said recently that he prefers to take a player who can help his team from Day 1.

That would seem to leave Wiggins’ status as No. 1 a foregone conclusion, but the fallout appears to have resulted in Duke small forward Jabari Parker ascending to the top.

“I think Jabari Parker is the safest pick because he’s NBA ready offensively right now,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He’s not nearly as good of a defender as Andrew Wiggins, who is long and very athletic. … But Parker is the safer pick.”

Like Embiid and Wiggins, Parker entered the draft after his freshman collegiate season. He and Wiggins both received awards touting them as the high school player of the year as seniors. Both, of course, are wonderful “can’t-miss” talents.

Both, too, have NBA pedigrees.

Wiggins is the son of former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins, who most notably teamed with small forward Lewis Lloyd to give the Houston Rockets a scoring tandem off the bench.

Parker is the son of small forward Sonny Parker, who averaged nearly 10 points a game in a six-year career with the Golden State Warriors.

That is where the similarities end. They are quite different as small forwards, and that makes for draft intrigue. Does one want Wiggins, 6-foot-8, 200 pounds and an exceptional athlete, great leaper and excellent defender who is also expected to develop into a top scorer?

Or does one want Parker, 6-8, 235, the more polished and versatile of the two, an extremely motivated smooth operator with a high basketball IQ?

“To me, Jabari is more of an interior player than Andrew, and Andrew is more of a perimeter player than Jabari,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think (Parker’s) skill set for a guy who can play inside is where he was so effective for Duke. He can get a big guy away from the basket, but he can still score on a big guy in the post.

“I’d say Andrew would be much more of a guard. He is a guard-small forward, where Jabari is probably considered a small forward-power forward. Both are tremendous prospects.”

Self said Wiggins’ skill set has yet to catch up to his athletic ability. However, he can’t wait to see him in the wide-open NBA style of play. One knock on Wiggins is that he was inconsistent in asserting himself, although some cite his unselfishness and facing college defenses stacked against him.

“There’ll be less help defense (in the NBA),” Self said. “It’s a little bit harder for teams to load up and basically have guys guarding the ball going in each direction in the NBA. That’s certain what happened to him in college.”

But Bilas wonders.

“Is he the type of a guy that’s going to have a killer instinct in being a superstar?” Bilas said. “Is he going to be the kind of guy that’s going to lead your team and go out there and not settle that he’s going to be the best player on the floor? Does he have the burning desire to do that?”

Wiggins broke the Kansas freshman record for scoring (17.1 points per game), led the Jayhawks in steals with 41, was second in blocked shots with 34, and averaged 5.9 rebounds per game.

Wiggins and Parker (19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 assists) overshadow Parker’s teammate at Duke, Rodney Hood, who transferred from Mississippi State and entered the draft after his sophomore season.

Hood, whose parents both played at Mississippi State, averaged 16.1 points and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in 3-point shooting percentage (42.0). Like Parker, he is known for playing under control and is versatile offensively.

An excellent outside shooter, he handles the ball very well and causes problems for foes with his drives into the lane.

They are the top small forwards, but the position has some depth and variety. North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren, 6-8, drives well to the basket and has an NBA-ready midrange game. Kentucky’s James Young, 6-6, shoots well and is a very athletic wing. At 6-10, Croatia’s Dario Saric has great size, is highly skilled, and can make plays and rebound.

Then there are those such as DeAndre Daniels, 6-8, who helped UConn win the national championship; and Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross, 6-8. Both are juniors who are good all-around players.

Young is joined by Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III in heading a list of seven players who are 6-6 but talented and athletic small forwards. It remains to be seen how many will have to become shooting guards or if they will create a niche at their position.

It also remains to be seen whether Cleveland, which appears to have made a mistake selecting small forward Anthony Bennett at No. 1 last year, will pick another player at that position.