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NBA Daily: Jabari Parker And The Second Comeback

With Jabari Parker on the verge of returning from a second ACL surgery, he might end up being a huge help to the surging Milwaukee Bucks.

Ben Nadeau

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Not many athletes return to full strength after an ACL tear, but Jabari Parker is ready to do it all over again for the second time.

Following a year-long absence, Parker, 22, will rejoin the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday for their game against the New York Knicks. The Bucks’ up-and-down campaign culminated with the dismissal of head coach Jason Kidd earlier this month, but Parker could be just the catalyst that this hot-and-cold running roster needs. In 2016-17, just over two years after his first ACL injury, Parker looked ready to make the jump to league-wide stardom. Averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 49 percent from the floor in 50 games, Parker had re-arrived in impressive fashion.

But on Feb. 8, disaster struck as Parker gathered awkwardly while attacking the hoop — just like that, the promising light had been extinguished once more. One year later, as he prepares to make yet another season debut, Parker knows that this is just the next step in his long-winding odyssey back to basketball.

“I feel good, even when I come back at some time, it’s just gonna still be a journey for me,” Parker told Bucks media members last week. “Taking it step-by-step, I’m not there, so every moment is an opportunity to get better.”

Through two horrific setbacks, these opportunities have come to define Parker’s career so far.

Once perceived as a weak three-point shooter, Parker made massive strides from deep upon that first return from injury. In fact, over his first two NBA seasons — although his rookie year was cut short after just 25 games, of course — Parker sported a mark of 13-for-51 (25.5 percent) from three-point range. But during that fantastic 50 game start to the 2016-17 season, Parker knocked down a respectable 65 of his 178 attempts from behind the arc.

Furthermore, Parker still very much looked like an elite scorer, taking defenders off the dribble with ease or pulling up from mid-range. But when discussing his imminent return, Parker clarified that he hasn’t gotten too far ahead of himself just yet.

“I just want to stay in tune with what I can control and the things I want to accomplish. If I think that I’m there, then I stay content — and therefore, I don’t try to get better,” Parker said. “But if I feel like I got a long way to go, then I still improve.

“I want to still keep that mentality ‘cause I don’t know how I’m gonna fit, so I just do everything that I can, in my will, to do what’s right for me and the team.”

Since Kidd was fired, the Bucks have matched their longest winning streak of the season at four games, defeating the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and a Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers squad in the last nine days. All of a sudden, Milwaukee has risen to 27-22 and are behind the spiraling, third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers by just two games in the loss column. To this point, Antetokounmpo, a sure-fire MVP candidate, has been flanked by Khris Middleton — averaging career-highs in points (20.4), rebounds (5.3) and assists (4.3) to boot — but the thought of adding Parker into the mix must be absolutely salivating.

Naturally, the 6-foot-8 scoring machine will be eased back into the rotation, starting with a 15-minute limit and then rising from there, according to Matt Velazquez of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to believe in Parker again.

* * * * * *

For those uninitiated, ACL is short for anterior cruciate ligament and it helps to connect an athlete’s knee to the femur and tibia. The ACL, along with the MCL, LCL and PCL, work in harmony to provide stability to the knees, a crucial component for excelling in a demanding, change-of-direction sport like basketball. Cutting, pivoting and leaping are important skills that basketball players must utilize constantly during a game, so a pair of healthy ACLs are understandably key for success on the hardwood.

These often non-contact injuries can happen in an instant and change a promising career trajectory forever. The typical year-long recovery requires difficult physical therapy and a range of motion exercises, all done in hopes of regaining that explosive ability once again. In many cases, sadly, that explosiveness never returns.

The list of NBA players to suffer an ACL tear is not a short one and the majority of athletes aren’t quite the same afterward. But over the last decade or so, the injury has stopped being a complete career killer. Ricky Rubio (2012), Rajon Rondo (2013) and Lou Williams (2013) have all bounced back from season-ending ACL tears in the last six years alone. To his credit, Parker has already climbed this mountain once — but what about those that have torn an ACL twice?

There’s the memorable story of DeJuan Blair, a former NBA forward that was left with no ACLs after two surgeries in high school. Despite averaging 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds during his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, Blair dropped into the second round of 2009 draft and lasted four years with the San Antonio Spurs. After joining the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards for a few seasons, Blair would then appear in both China and the D-League. As of today, Blair is still playing with San Lorenzo de Almagro, an Argentinian franchise, more than 10 years after his ACL operations. Suffice it to say, however, Parker must be aiming higher than that.

Subsequently, Josh Howard tore his left ACL shortly after being traded to the Wizards in early 2010. Howard reached just 61 combined contests over next two seasons. But following a right ACL tear while with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012, the 10-year veteran would never play another NBA game. Strikingly, there’s also the case of Michael Redd to consider, perhaps the Bucks’ last franchise cornerstone prior to the arrival of Parker and Antetokounmpo. Redd, a one-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, averaged 21.2 points per game before injuring his left ACL and MCL in 2009. He returned for the 2009-10 season, but tallied just 11.9 points over 18 games — a stark comparison — until he re-tore the ligaments on that same knee, which practically knocked Redd down for good.

The difference, notably, is that Redd was 30 years-old at the time of his second surgery and at 22, Parker, hopefully, is just getting started.

* * * * * *

Although the Bucks currently put up 105.2 points per game, an average that sticks them dead center in the NBA (tied for 15th), they’ve struggled all year from three-point range. Hitting them at a clip of just 35.5 percent, the Bucks nearly rank in the bottom ten for conversion rate. Even worse, Milwaukee only makes a paltry 8.7 three-pointers per contest, a poor tally that only the Knicks and Timberwolves beat out in futility.

Middleton has led the way thus far with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34.7 percent average is his lowest mark since his rookie season. On top of that, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November following his own knee surgery and the reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs. If Parker’s three-point outburst in 2016-17 was not an outlier, then the Milwaukee offense could see a major bump in the coming months.

The mental aspect of recovering from an ACL injury can be just as difficult as the physical side though too, so expecting Parker to do it all again is a tall order. When Derrick Rose tore his ACL during the 2012 playoffs, outsiders wondered if the hyper-athletic leaper would ever regain his MVP-winning mojo. In the days after that injury, K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune talked with Jamal Crawford, who tore his ACL in 2001, about how challenging it was to mentally recover from the worst injury of his 18-year career.

“Then, after surgery, you start rehab and start to see some progressions,” Crawford said. “You get a little more confident as it goes along. And then the last stage is the mental part: ‘Can I still do that move? Can I still do that cut?’ The actual leg you injure ends up being stronger than the leg that’s not injured. But you don’t believe that at first. You’re scared. You doubt.”

Since the initial injury, Rose has dealt with multiple issues on both knees and the point guard hasn’t played a 70-plus game season in seven years. Needless to say, Parker will hope to dodge that fate altogether. Unfortunately, according to a 2013 study from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, the likelihood of reinjuring a rehabbed ACL within 24 months of reconstruction is apparently six times greater than someone who has never endured that ailment before. Beyond what injuring that left ACL for the third time might mean, it will also increase the odds that Parker seriously hurts his right knee as well.

While it’s not unpopular hyperbole to say that most everybody is hoping for a full and permanent return to the court, the Bucks must wait and see for now.

In October, the Bucks couldn’t reach an agreement with Parker on a contract extension, a decision that will make him a restricted free agent this summer. Understandably, the Bucks want to see how Parker has recovered from another career-altering knee injury before promising him upwards of $150 million. If his impending return is anything like that first comeback though, Parker will surely be a key cog in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future.

Antetokounmpo recently remarked that he thinks Parker’s presence will “take this team to the next level” — but for now, the talented scorer is just looking forward to beating those stacked odds for the second time.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft

After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.

Ben Nadeau

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Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.

Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?

For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.

At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.

Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…

As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.

But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.

We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.

…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide

Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?

After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.

The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.

The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out

Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.

Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.

In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.

Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.

While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Losers of the NBA Draft

Shane Rhodes breaks down the losers of the 2018 NBA Draft.

Shane Rhodes

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The 2018 NBA Draft season has come to a close. And, while the actual draft wasn’t the fireworks show that it could have been, there was still plenty of surprises, both good and bad.

While Basketball Insiders’ Simon Hannig discussed the winners of the draft, not everyone was so fortunate. And, while the draft can come down to chance, some teams were worse off than others.

Let’s take a look at some of the bigger losers from draft night

Mikal Bridges

Talk about heartbreak.

Mikal Bridges was going home. The Philadelphia 76ers selected the Villanova standout with the No. 10 pick. Bridges did an entire press conference, talking about what it was like to be staying in Philadelphia. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is even the Global VP of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the team. It was perfect.

And then it wasn’t.

It’s hard to not feel bad for Bridges, who was dropped into a dream scenario and then had it all ripped away. Going to the Phoenix Suns, an organization heading in a new direction, to play alongside plenty of young, high upside talent, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton as well as former lottery picks Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, isn’t the worst thing in the world for the rookie forward. Bridges could even flourish in Phoenix.

But it certainly won’t compare to playing under the bright lights in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid come next April and for years to come.

Michael Porter Jr.

One year ago, Michael Porter Jr. was a top three draft prospect projected to go as high as No. 1 overall. However, with rumors of questionable medicals swirling throughout the draft process, he dropped all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall.

While Porter will certainly welcome the chip on his shoulder, the lost earnings will definitely hurt him and his pocket. Porter is missing out on millions on his first NBA contract. Plus, the sheer amount of teams that balked at his medicals doesn’t bode well for his long-term future in the NBA.

It isn’t all bad for Porter; Denver has a young, talented roster and was one win away from a postseason birth last year. They can afford to be patient with Porter’s back, should he need to miss some time, as well. Standing 6-foot-11, 211 pounds and with a smooth jumper, Porter still has a great chance to be a star in this league.

Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to what, hopefully, is a long NBA career.

Sacramento Kings

This could apply to the Sacramento Kings roster as well as their fanbase.

The Kings got “their guy” in No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. And, while Bagley is still an amazing talent, the pick just seems like more of the same for the Kings, who have a glut of bigs — Willie-Cauley Stein, Harry Giles III, Skal Labissiere, Kostas Koufos — on the roster and a distinct lack of high-quality guard or wing depth.

In steps Luka Dončić, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom. With the Suns taking Ayton with the top pick, the Kings had their chance to shore up their backcourt for the foreseeable future alongside De’Aaron Fox and move another step closer to relevancy.

And they whiffed.

Dončić could very well end up as the best player in the class. While he isn’t the most athletic, Dončić is exactly where the NBA is going; he is a multipositional defender and playmaker that can shoot the three. Meanwhile, Bagley, who is a questionable fit in the modern game, will be hardpressed to find playing time early on in his Kings tenure. Even worse, with their hearts set on Bagley, the Kings likely could have traded down a la the Atlanta Hawks and picked up another asset for their troubles.

While it’s much too early to call it either way, this is a pick that could come back to haunt Sacramento down the line.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It was not a great night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers missed out on one point-guard prospect, Trae Young, and another, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, flat out said he didn’t want to play for the franchise. And, even though they got a guard they liked in Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers are still in the unenviable position of dealing with LeBron James’ third iteration of The Decision.

Sexton’s selection doesn’t exactly help them retain James’ services either.

Since acquiring the pick from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, it had been speculated as to whether Cleveland would use the pick or trade it to get James help. With the team opting for the former, it’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers getting any significant help for James, in free agency or otherwise, which could push him closer to leaving than he already may be. Meanwhile, Sexton, who dominated the ball during his time at Alabama, isn’t exactly the best fit alongside James in the event that he stays.

Either way, there appears to be a bumpy road ahead for the Cavaliers.

Washington Wizards

Troy Brown Jr. is a great pickup for the Washington Wizards. That still doesn’t mean he wasn’t a reach.

Brown is a twitchy wing that can defend multiple positions. But there were multiple wings that Washington could have taken ahead of Brown (e.g., Lonnie Walker II) that would have made this a better pick. Brown struggled as a shooter during his lone season at Oregon — he shot just 29.1 percent from three and has some iffy mechanics — and is a strange fit on the Wizards roster that already has a surplus of wing depth in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre.

With the team looking to move Marcin Gortat, a big would have been a better fit for Washington at 15. Or, if management was deadset on Brown, dropping back a few spots would have made more sense.

Brown certainly has the talent to make an impact, but it’s hard to like a pick that may not crack the rotation in year one, according to the Wizards own General Manager.

Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors took a big step earlier this offseason, moving on from Dwane Casey and placing Nick Nurse at the helm in early June.

But, with zero picks in a loaded draft, the Raptors have to be considered losers.

There were plenty of difference makers available up-and-down the draft board, but the Raptors didn’t end up with any of them. While management could improve the team via trade or free agency come July, they still feature the same roster that got manhandled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by James and the Cavaliers and that isn’t good.

Not everyone can come out a winner in a crapshoot like the NBA Draft. Still, some teams found themselves worse off than others when all was said and done. Luckily, those teams still have a chance to improve themselves with free agency right around the corner.

 

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft

Simon Hannig breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.

Simon Hannig

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The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and although many teams have improved coming out of this loaded draft, five teams seemed to have walked away as the biggest winners.

The Phoenix Suns Got Their Guy

The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft, selecting DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick.

The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but later traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers for Mikal Bridges.

In the second round of the draft, Phoenix selected Frenchman Elie Okobo and George King from Colorado, each of whom should be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team immediately. If not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.

Does Mo Bamba Have The (Orlando) Magic?

The Orlando Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba, whom they surprisingly selected with the sixth overall pick in the draft. They later drafted Melvin Frazier in the second round. It was a bit surprising that the Tulane product lasted that long, but the Magic benefitted.

Orlando got a player who can contribute right away and could compete for a starting job. Frazier is a great rebounder and defender and could change the team’s defense all by himself. The club now has two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba and a young contributor in Frazier.

Although the team’s offense will likely be work in progress, they can be very scary on the defensive end.

Now, we’ll all wait to see if Bamba, the New York product, can carry the Magic back to respectability.

Atlanta Hawks Will Let It Fly

After drafting Luka Doncic with the third overall pick, the Hawks ended up sending him to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young and a future protected first round pick. The pick is top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected in 2021 and 2022 and unprotected in 2023, according to Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.

With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and, with the 30th overall pick, selected Omari Spellman from Villanova.

Atlanta appears to building themselves in the way of the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with Golden State before taking the job with the Hawks.

The Rich Got Richer In Boston

The Celtics once again got a steal in the draft, as they were the beneficiaries as it relates to Robert Williams from Texas A&M. He is an athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. Williams has lottery talent but ended up falling to the Celtics, who selected him with the 27th pick of the draft.

Williams averaged 2.5 blocks per game at Texas and should also be able to provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams, as he averaged three offensive rebounds per game in college.

Luka Doncic Found A Good Home

The Dallas Mavericks walked away from the 2018 NBA Draft with two foundational pieces in tow, Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. Their other moves were also tremendous, as they drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ younger brother) with the last piece in the draft.

For Mark Cuban, it may take time to develop the pieces, but if things could go well, the Mavs might have some productive years ahead.

Doncic was thought to be one of, if not the best player available in the draft, so getting him at the expense of a protected future first round pick seems like a fair trade. Depending on how ready he is to contribute at the NBA level, the sky could be the limit.

Of course, every year, there are surprises. Some good, and some bad. However, walking away from the 2018 NBA Draft, these five teams all appear to have improved themselves immensely.

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