A modern wing?
An undersized post player?
An athletic anomaly?
A defensive liability?
Maybe we’ll find out in 2016-17.
Jabari Parker is an enigma.
The 21-year-old begins the 2016-17 season fresh off his first full year at the professional level. And yet, it seems as though we know as little about him as when he entered the NBA as the No. 2 overall pick in 2014.
Parker was supposed to be the most polished player in his draft. The one who would have an immediate impact. He drew comparisons to Carmelo Anthony for his clinical ability to score on the offensive end. He stretched the floor with his shot, his post game was elite and he attacked the basket on transition. He even drew rave reviews for his defense, particularly on the interior, as he averaged 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes in his sole year at Duke. The Cleveland Cavaliers might have selected Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 pick, but Parker was the consensus rookie of the year favorite.
That is, until he tore his ACL 25 games into his young career.
***Curiously enough, instead of bottoming out without the presumed future of their franchise, the Bucks went on to win 41 games and make the playoffs. While good for franchise morale, this rewardless mediocrity crippled the franchise for years to come. If you listen hard enough, you can hear Sam Hinkie softly sing Here Comes The Sun.***
Gatorade gave Parker a redemption endorsement. And as if to spite Robert Griffin III himself, gosh darnit, it worked.
Somehow, Parker returned the following season more explosive and athletic than ever. He attacked the rim with authority off the ball, cutting purposefully in coach Jason Kidd‘s frenzied, transition-heavy offensive scheme. The result? Highlight-reel slams and 14.1 points in 31.7 minutes per game.
But for as many expectations as Parker exceeded in 2015-16, he fell shy of many more.
Look no further than his shot. At Duke, Parker splashed 36 percent of his 106 looks from deep. When coach Mike Krzyzewski rolled out college Death Lineup East, he put Parker at the 4 and either used him as the screener on the high pick-and-roll or set him up for open looks on the outside with weak-side pin-ups.
Now, contrast that with his usage in Milwaukee. Parker attempted 35 3’s in 76 games last year. He made nine of them. NINE.
***List of players who made more 3’s than Jabari Parker last year:
- Kostas Papanikolaou (10)
- Enes Kanter (10)
- Luc Mbah a Moute (13)
- Axel Toupane (13)
- Quincy Acy (19)***
To be clear, scouts knocked his shot coming out of college. Many labeled it as “flat.” He’s already made five 3’s to start the 2016-17 campaign, an encouraging sign for sure. Yet he still tends to settle for mid-range jumpers all too often. His post game ranked in the 88th percentile last year, but Kidd hasn’t given him the definitive green light to stall possessions eight feet off the block. As a second-year player in a shooter’s league, where does Parker’s offensive game stand without any consistent ability to stretch the floor?
Understandably for a 20-year-old still acclimating to the NBA’s pace-and-space era, Parker struggled on the defensive end last season. The weight he gained during rehab didn’t help. He came into the league at 240 pounds, but played at a little over 250 in 2015-16. In theory, this isn’t a bad thing. It provides Kidd more positional versatility, with Parker capable of marking 4’s in small-ball lineups. But his 49.6 defensive field goal percentage against was the fifth-worst mark in the Eastern Conference last year among forwards. Milwaukee has prioritized length across the board, and with Greg Monroe now coming off the bench in a reduced role, they have the personnel to swarm the high pick-and-roll. But Parker’s lack of speed may harpoon their chances of transforming into a top-5 defense in the East.
Parker is just one of a host of misshapen puzzle pieces in Milwaukee. Perhaps that’s par for the course when a team’s point guard is a 6’11” gyro-stepping hybrid creature. The Bucks each have a unique skillset, but Parker remains the key which can unlock their full potential. If his shot develops and he elevates his post game further, he can become the technical scorer Milwaukee envisioned to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s overpowering slasher-ism. These two, plus the length provided by John Henson, Thon Maker and Tony Snell makes for a squad capable of stealing points on both ends.
The Bucks are 4-3 and have a legitimate chance for the No. 7 seed in the East, even without Khris Middleton, their chief floor-spacer. But they’re playing to see what they have for next year, along with 90 percent of the NBA. Parker’s campaign will go a long way in determining how Milwaukee approaches its next few offseasons. As for right now, they still have to find out exactly what he is.