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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.

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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.

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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 Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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