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NBA Sunday: Still Waiting For Jabari Parker

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As the NBA draft lottery draws near and debates are had over whether Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball deserves to be the top overall pick, one can’t help but think back to 2014 when the same exact debate was had regarding Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo rapidly ascending to superstar status, onlookers can only marvel at his unique blend of skills. With the Milwaukee Bucks looking every bit like the team of the future, it’s fair to say that whether or not this current incarnation of the squad fulfills what appears to be its mighty potential rests squarely on the shoulders of Jabari Parker.

It’s time for him to prove that he can carry that burden.

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Of most sub-25-year-old players in the league, Parker is the one whose progress has been most closely monitored. During a one-on-one interview with Parker during the NBA’s 2016 All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Parker and I spoke about his development, his return from injury and whether or not he felt that these Bucks had everything they need to become a team able to contend for the Eastern Conference.

As they have mostly looked the part, it’s a tad bit disconcerting that they have had to do so mostly in the absence of Parker. Three seasons after being drafted, Parker has played the lion’s share of games in just one, his second. Now, after three years, his season has ended prematurely twice. The worst part? Parker has now torn the ACL in his left knee twice. The first time was during his rookie year in December 2014, while the second occurred in February 2017. When Parker tore his left ACL for the second time in February, it was estimated that his rehabilitation period would take about 12 months, meaning that he is likely to miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season.

If things go according to plan, after playing just 25 games in his rookie year and 51 games in his third season, Parker will have played just 59 percent of the total games possible during the first four years of his career. That the injury that will cause the consistent absences is one that has recurred is certainly cause for concern. If there’s one thing that Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and even Derrick Rose have taught us, it’s that all the talent in the world means absolutely nothing if your body can’t stand up to the rigors of playing on consecutive nights and over the course of a seven-month regular season.

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The only thing more surprising than Jason Kidd being named the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets was when the news was broken that he was leaving the franchise to assume the helm for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Still thought to be years away from competing, Kidd inherited a roster featuring quite a few young players with promise — Parker, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton among them. Since then, John Henson, Greg Monroe, Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon have been added. And although they fell to the Toronto Raptors in six games during their playoff appearance, the Bucks have let the world know that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Collectively, we can only wonder where that leaves Parker.

If given a truth serum, most NBA head coaches would admit that they would rather not have a star player who frequently finds himself on the shelf. Wondering whether or not a player will be around for the long haul and adjusting a game plan in his absence is a disruption that most teams would rather do without. Obviously, that’s not to say that a team wouldn’t want to have a player at their disposal who could make a difference, but the “in today, out tomorrow” that marks injury-prone players is difficult to plan around and ultimately results in deflation that can sometimes be hard to overcome.

It’s the equivalent of being told you’ve won the lottery, only to be notified two days later that your winnings are docked to cover a recently deceased parent’s debt. At a certain point, you’ll simply run out of patience.

With Henson, Maker, Middleton, Monroe, Mirza Teletovic and the versatility of Antetokounmpo, the Bucks appear to have a greater need for another combo guard than a front court player.

Even more worthy of our attention would be a few key metrics, as reported by 82games.com:

  • The Bucks have six different five-man lineups that surrender fewer than one point per possession, and none of them feature Parker.
  • Of the two worse defensive lineups that the Bucks feature, both feature Parker. While it’s also true that they featured Monroe (who is renowned as a poor defender), Parker isn’t exactly Draymond Green.

Is it fair to say that the Bucks would be better off without Parker? Probably not.

But at this point, it certainly seems fair to wonder whether or not they need him to become a power or whether they should consider trading him, though his stock would be admittedly low at the moment.

One way or another, though, for the Bucks, all eyes will be on their trajectory and whether or not they are able to take the next step. Most will tell you that it’s more difficult to go from being a 45-win team to a 50-win team than it is going from being a cellar-dweller to a .500 team.

Either way, with or without Parker, things are looking up for the Bucks.

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When LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony entered the league back in 2003, it was thought that their draft class was among the stronger we have seen. Now, 14 years later, we know that to have been true. Similarly, scouts have been raving about the 2017 draft class, and the Bucks are fortunate to have the 17th overall pick, as well as the 48th overall pick.

Additionally, Monroe and Spencer Hawes each have player options for the 2017-18 season, totaling a combined $24 million. The Bucks also have an important decision to make on Tony Snell—the club can make him a restricted free agent by extending to him a qualifying offer prior to July 1.

Depending on how things shake out, the Bucks could very well find themselves $20 million under the cap, though clearing that kind of space would require both Monroe and Hawes opting out and the club walking away from each, rather than re-signing them. In the long run, doing so may behoove Jason Kidd and his team.

Still, in the end, it all comes back to Parker. With the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors still the top two consensus teams in the league, we know for sure that it takes three to tango in today’s NBA. We now know for sure that the Bucks, in Antetokounmpo, have one. At this point, the franchise can hold steadfast to the hope that either Maker, Middleton or Brogdon can emerge as a solid number two.

As for Parker? Unfortunately, we are still facing questions not only about his durability, but whether and how he fits in with the Bucks long term.

Interestingly enough, it was Grant Hill who Parker was compared to most during the pre-draft process, with Kidd (who was Hill’s draft mate) even making the comparison.

Sadly, though, after three years in the league, it’s not Hill’s productivity or smooth play that Parker has most emulated—it’s been his inability to stay healthy.

Hopefully, the next three years will be better than the first. Because one way or another, the Bucks and their mighty future may very well depend on Parker and whether he stays and plays or moves on to greener (and hopefully healthier) pastures.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.