NBA Sunday: One-On-One With Jabari Parker

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With the lights flashing and the cameras rolling, the neophyte sat and thought for a moment, but only a moment.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said when asked if there were talented players around him. “This is a really good draft. We have a lot of veteran players and a lot of young players from college, but it’s our job to get the job done.”

Poised, polished and candid, Jabari Parker looked every member of the media in the eyes and answered every question posed to him with maturity, responsibility and confidence.

On the morning of June 25, 2014—merely hours before the Milwaukee Bucks selected him with the second overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft—Parker impressed everyone within earshot of him at the NBA’s pre-draft media availability.

I walked away knowing that he had the mental makeup required of a rookie being changed with altering the fortunes of a floundering franchise.

Unfortunately, his body had different ideas.

* * * * *

Over the past several years, scores of promising youngsters have entered the NBA. Some of the sub-25-year-old contributors who have earned our attention and affection are Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond, Karl-Anthony Towns and, the young man who was drafted just ahead of Parker, Andrew Wiggins.

The unfortunate truth is that the gross majority of promising players drafted will ultimately be forgotten in the grand scheme. For a prime example, one need to look no further than the likes of Mark Price, Mitch Richmond, Derrick Coleman or Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Derrick Rose, it seems, could ultimately find himself joining a long list of history’s “What If?” stories, joining Brandon Roy and a prior generation of destined-to-be greats such as Anfernee Hardaway and Tracy McGrady.

In another 10 years, will Parker be remembered? It’s not a stretch to say that, to an extent, he was already forgotten.

“I feel good,” Parker told Basketball Insiders recently. “I try not to make excuses for myself. If I’m out there, I try to make the most of my ability and make the most out of it.

“There’s some good people in my corner that help me get up. It’s going to be a journey and each and every game there’s room for improvement.”

It’s been about 20 months since Parker was the starry-eyed kid that was extolling the virtues of Wiggins and discussing his desire to be a difference-maker on the NBA level, and about 14 months since he sustained a torn ACL that caused him to miss all but 25 games of his rookie season.

After sitting on the bench and watching his Bucks overachieve in his absence, Parker, at this moment, is about three months into his return. Unsurprisingly, he has had trouble finding his rhythm on the floor. He appears a bit thicker than he did the last time we had a one-on-one conversation, but he is as pleasant as ever.

“I felt good out there,” Parker told me after participating in the Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto. “I felt good because this is priceless. You can’t buy this back,” in reference to having the opportunity to take the court, find his rhythm and play with a few of his teammates in a spirited but friendly exhibition.

And as we had a brief encounter in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre, Parker recalled what his journey had been like to this point. The expectations and the hopes thrust upon him, he says, are all just background noise. What has gotten him to this point, he reminds me, is his belief that the game of basketball is bigger than one man. His pursuits, desire and dedication—especially after sustaining such a horrifying injury—are all about the bigger picture.

That bigger picture, he says, is winning.

“You know what? If it so happens for me to be an All-Star, then yeah,” Parker said about looking forward to potentially playing on in the main event on All-Star Weekend—the Sunday night game. “But the most important thing is me being on my team, Milwaukee, me representing the city and me being a team player.”

And fittingly enough, as Parker and I chatted about life in the NBA thus far, he gave me a quick reminder.

“All I care about is winning when it counts,” he said with a shrug.

At ease, confident and relaxed, if you can’t say anything else about Jabari Parker, you can certainly say that he is mature beyond his years and a youngster with a great head on his shoulders.

“Just wait and see. Be a little patient,” Parker said to me when asked about him returning to his pre-injury form.

The playoffs, he says, are still a legitimate and reasonable goal and expectation for this team. After doing some quick math, Parker reminds me that he and his Buck still have 28 games left in the regular season, and that there is plenty of time to put together a solid run and try to snag one of the seeds available in the increasingly-competitive conference.

* * * * *

With sweat streaming down his brow, it takes Parker a moment to realize that Frank Kaminsky is daring him to shoot a jumper. To this point, Parker has gotten to the basket rather effectively, so for Kaminsky, the choice was to accept the lesser of two evils.

Dribbling to his right, Parker quickly crosses over to his left. As Kaminsky steps back to prepare for what he believes is the impending drive to the basket, Parker steps back and, suddenly, has five feet of space. He calmly shoots a pull-up 12-footer reminiscent of the Detroit Pistons version of Grant Hill, calmly converting the shot. For the rest of the third quarter, Parker terrorizes the Charlotte Hornets and each of the defenders sent his way. Though occurring in the loss, Parker’s 23 points are a season and career-high. Afterward, he dismisses the accomplishment and reminds those around him to be patient.

The road back to where he was before the injury, he knows, will be long and circuitous.

“Don’t expect this next game,” Parker says.

Right he was. On February 20, the following night, Parker didn’t match the 23-point effort—he improved on it. And this time, he led his team to victory. With 28 points and 13 rebounds, Parker led the Bucks to a tough road win over the Atlanta Hawks.

Indeed, he is far from his final destination, but as an NBA player, Parker is coming along nicely; he certainly is far from where he began.

* * * * *

Entering play on February 21 with a 23-33 record, the Bucks trail the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference by six games. Time may be running out on them this season. But the race is not for the swift. The proclamation made in this very space that these Bucks will one day be the cream of the East seems laughable now, so chuckle while you can.

As Wiggins has seemingly left Parker in the dust, living among the Tinder generation that values instant gratification, we must remember the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Parker possesses the spirit of the wise old turtle.

It’s not over for these Bucks, and life really hasn’t even begun for Parker.

“No, nothing has been surprising. I’ve had a lot of friends that played in the league so they pretty much prepared me for it,” Parker said before admitting that the travel can be a bit hectic at times. “The expectation is to be professional. And I pretty much had everything to be prepared for.”

Everything, except, suffering a tough injury that would cost him his rookie year. Set back just a tad, Parker has handled that like a champion.

And even in the limited sample size that we have on him and his career to this point, it’s fairly safe to assume that one day, Jabari Parker will be remembered as one too.