When Chandler Parsons was in first grade, back at Highlands Elementary School, he had to draw a picture showing what he wanted to do when he grew up.
That illustration, saved and treasured to this day by teacher Kim Boss, shows an adult Parsons wearing a basketball jersey. It had no team logo. Not the championship-winning Chicago Bulls or the nearby Orlando Magic.
The jersey simply read “NBA.”
“He’s had that dream for a long time,” said Terri Parsons, his mother. “She’s going to send that to him when he makes it to the NBA.”
Making the leap to pro basketball seemed inevitable when the talented swingman came to Florida in 2007, leaving Lake Howell High with impressive accolades, rave reviews and outrageous expectations of what he would accomplish at UF.
Florida coach Billy Donovan saw it right away, smiling as he looked back at how Parsons thought he would lead the Gators to the Final Four, leave after his freshman year, get drafted in the first round and instantly become an NBA All-Star.
“I came in here as a freshman with the complete wrong mindset,” Parsons said. “I came in here thinking just because I’m here at Florida they’ve won two back-to-back national championships, I’m going to do what these guys did, I’m going to be the next Corey Brewer.”
He flashed his potential early on with the Gators, contributing respectable statistics in his first two years.
But by the end of his sophomore year, that was all Parsons had: potential, and two National Invitation Tournament appearances to go along with it.
Nearly two years later, Parsons has put it all together, transforming into the versatile NBA prospect everyone knew he could be and this season’s Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
Some might view Parsons’ development as a giant leap forward — the result of a light-bulb moment in which the Gators forward finally “got it.”
But the truth is, he simply grew up.
“He got older,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. “He’s had the normal maturation of a really good player.”
Following in the footsteps of the ‘04s and their back-to-back national titles, Parsons thought championships were his birthright.
He first stepped foot on UF’s campus as Rivals.com’s 19th-best prospect in 2007, featuring a buzzcut and an undeserved sense of entitlement. Part of a recruiting class that included friend and high school teammate Nick Calathes, Parsons’ rangy frame and outside shooting made scouts salivate.
“He had a lot of potential when he got there. He was kind of raw and looked like a young colt, really,” Bilas said. “I liked him the best out of all the young players Billy had back then.”
But for everything the Gators had in young talent, they lacked in leadership, experience and production on the court. Instead of hanging NCAA Championship banners in the O’Connell Center, they found themselves in the NIT two years in a row.
“There was no real leadership there, so they were kind of floundering about,” said Gary Parsons, his father. “Billy was getting frustrated and the kids had a little sense of entitlement because they had Florida on the front of their jerseys.”
Often playing out of position as a power forward, Parsons averaged 8.1 points and four rebounds per game off the bench. He improved those numbers to 9.2 and 5.7 as a sophomore. At the time, that was good enough for Parsons, as his primary focus was personal success.
His development at UF mirrored his high school career, Gary Parsons said. Glimmers of potential would shine through from time to time, notably in a Jan. 25, 2009, game at Vanderbilt, where Parsons hit seven three-pointers and scored 27 points.
But still, his focus wasn’t right. From game to game, he was wildly inconsistent.
Looking back, Donovan called him a “disaster” at the end of close contests.
When guard Erving Walker was a freshman in 2008, he said he would never have thought to ask Parsons for any kind of advice.
All that kept him from developing into the kind of leader Florida needed, the one he would eventually become.
“He never focused on the things that were preventing him from reaching his potential,” Donovan said. “He thought his things were physical: ‘I’ve got to get quicker; I’ve got to get stronger.’ No, you need to change your approach. Your mental approach to what this is all about needs to change.”
While that process certainly didn’t happen overnight, Parsons was partially thrust into a leadership role that demanded more maturity based on one decision — and it wasn’t his own.
Calathes left Florida after two excellent statistical seasons, getting selected in the second round of the NBA Draft but ultimately landing in Greece to play professionally.
On and off the court, the loss of his friend, high school teammate and the Gators’ primary ball handler and scorer affected Parsons.
When he came back as a junior, he ditched the buzzcut for a shaggy mop-top and his personal goals for a team-first attitude, becoming the heart of Florida’s team and displaying his versatility as a shooter, rebounder and passer.
“The best thing for Chandler was Nick leaving for Greece,” Gary Parsons said. “It gave Chandler an opportunity to prove to Donovan and to his teammates that he had a lot of potential, a lot of skill and a lot of capability.”
Adam Allen, one of the three remaining members of the Gators’ No.1-ranked Class of 2007, recently summed up the freshman version of Parsons with two words.
But as a junior, Parsons was a changed man.
He made the extra pass on offense, accepted greater challenges on defense and relentlessly crashed the glass on both sides of the floor.
He watched so much game film that he broke buttons on his remote control.
“Over the years, he’s just learned the game so well. He treats it like a job now,” Allen said. “Now, he just knows what’s going on, and he’s turned into a great player.”
Once a nightmare in clutch situations, Parsons drained two game-winning buzzer-beaters that propelled him into the national spotlight.
His father said Parsons’ confidence skyrocketed after hitting the two highlight-reel shots in less than three weeks last January, helping him feel more comfortable with his place in the college game.
Both of Parsons’ parents said their son never doubted himself or his abilities, but he was humbled by the personal and team-wide disappointments of his first two seasons at Florida.
As Parsons finally tackled the issues that held him back as an underclassman and continued to mature mentally and physically, he began to realize his potential.
“Chandler’s always had confidence, but I really do think it grew more when he was there,” Terri Parsons said. “He realized hard work and doing the right thing and being a team player would pay off. I think it gave him a whole different perspective.”
It gave Parsons a whole different look on the floor, too. Returning to his natural position at small forward, he averaged 12.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season.
He quickly gained his teammates’ respect as a leader, and Donovan saw it as well. The things UF’s coach had been saying the previous two years finally registered with Parsons, and it showed in practice and on the court.
“Chandler’s made an incredible jump mentally,” Donovan said. “An incredible jump. As big of a jump as Joakim Noah made as a player, that is the jump that Chandler has made going into the games and understanding what he needs to do.”
Parsons’ growth continued this season, as he developed a more selfless attitude and led Florida to its second consecutive NCAA Tournament and, perhaps ironically, ended up earning Parsons individual honors as well.
The senior was named Florida’s first-ever Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, led the Gators to a regular-season SEC Championship and is averaging 11.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
“I feel like I just needed to be in the right mindset and not worry about everything else, not worry about any distractions out there,” Parsons said. “I just need to focus on basketball and get better and worry about my team and what I can do to help winning.”
It took a completely changed mentality, a few years of development and significantly more work than anticipated, but Parsons has now reached the level of play he expected would come naturally.
And with his improvement has come increased exposure on campus and around the nation. Parsons has become the face of Florida basketball in the post-04’s era, a constant presence in the community and an ambassador for the program to the local and national media.
“He’s never one to shy away from doing those kind of things,” said Fred Demarest, the NCAA’s associate director of public/media relations and a former UF sports information director. “He’s always tried to put Florida basketball in as much of a spotlight as he could.”
With his unabashed confidence, comfort in front of a camera — and a college degree in telecommunications, which he will receive in April — Parsons hopes to spin his success on the court into a career on television when his playing days are over.
And he has his eye on one job in particular.
“I think it’s kind of cute, and I love it when he teases that he’d like to take over Jay Bilas’ job,” Terri Parsons said. “That would be awesome.”
Before that, however, Parsons hopes to make a name for himself in the NBA. He visited Calathes in Greece last summer and, according to Gary Parsons, wasn’t thrilled with the idea of playing overseas.
Parsons has received plenty of attention from pro scouts, and most NBA Draft projections have him falling somewhere in the second round.
But his father said the family has been getting calls from agents and hearing their son might have played his way into the first round and a guaranteed contract.
“He deserves all the credit, because you know what, he was the one that put all the work in,” Donovan said. “Because of his approach, I think he’s going to have a career at the next level somewhere. I really believe that.”
But with Florida in the middle of the NCAA Tournament run he initially envisioned, Parsons isn’t ready for his college career to end.
Four wins, or one loss, still keep him from making his first-grade dream a reality,
“It’s all or nothing from here on out. It’s crazy. It’s flown by and time has gone very fast, and I’ve enjoyed my time here,” Parsons said. “As soon as we lose, we’re done, so I don’t want that to come for another three weeks.”