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Jabari Parker in Playmaking Land

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Khris Middleton’s absence should mean more opportunities — and pressure -- on the former Duke star.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For someone purported to be an anchor of the team’s future, Jabari Parker looked more like a bit piece during the first half of last season. Tipped as a future “alpha” NBA scorer in the lead-up to the 2014 NBA Draft, by February of last year his low usage percentage tied for just sixth on the team with the hook-heaving John Henson.

Post All-Star break though, Parker shot up to second on the team behind Giannis, posting a 23.9% usage en route to performances that had Bucks fans gradually emerge from DEFCON Derrick Williams. With the news of Khris Middleton’s six-month absence, fans are expecting Parker’s usage to increase even further, but might Parker also develop some of the playmaking skills that made Middleton so useful? Will it even matter since Giannis should have a 100% usage while he’s on the court? Let’s explore:

Playmaking is a nebulous term, but for the purposes of this exercise let’s define it as creating points for others through assists or scoring while in isolation. When looking at the breadth of Jabari’s plays last year, what’s immediately clear is that his possession types were as jumbled as the Bucks frontcourt rotation (rim-shot). The majority of his possessions came in transition, spot-ups and cuts while also dabbling in pick and roll, isolation and post-ups. His possession categories make him look like a jack-of-all-trades, master of few. In fact, his points-per-play ranked in the lower 50% of all players for every category except putbacks (78.0%), transition (74.5%) and post-ups (87.5%). Overall then, the sheer variety of Jabari’s plays paints the picture of a versatile talent who feels comfortable in all facets on the offensive end, though he’s not yet at the point of being efficient in isolation, pick-and-rolls or spot-ups.

One of the main issues with examining Jabari as a playmaker is that there’s little to no evidence of it so far. Part of the issue is that Jabari has barely had the ball in his hands long enough to make something happen. Parker’s average time of possession per touch was a measly 1.5 seconds, which would’ve ranked 9th on the team among players that appeared in at least half the season’s games, per NBA.com. That’s a far cry from Giannis’s 3.1 average or MCW’s stickum average of 4.7. While decisiveness is a welcome trait from a player comped to Carmelo “Ball-stopper” Anthony coming out of college, giving Jabari a few more seconds to cook may be imperative without Middleton. Still, his unique skill set may lend itself to quicker possessions, which should also allay concerns over the compatibility of Jabari with players like Giannis.

Jabari’s ability to attack close-outs was well chronicled by Brett Koremenos in Frank and Eric’s podcast a few weeks ago, meaning he may not need to have the ball as long as Giannis or MCW to make an impact as a playmaker. A rapid rip-through and kick-out to an open shooter can be just as potent as an iso drive to the rim, particularly on a team bent on shooting more threes. Still, Middleton served as a bail-out ball handler in many cases, and Jabari will have to take on at least some of those isolation responsibilities.

Although Jabari certainly displays the skills to score in isolation and create separation, his efficiency will have to improve dramatically for him to attract more attention from defenses. In the clip below, Jabari’s potential as a match-up nightmare is fully realized, as he turns Frank Kaminsky’s ankles to Flubber while nailing two step-backs.

Jabari used this same move on defenders aplenty last year, though to far less success than against Kaminsky. Shooting a grisly 28.6% on isolation plays, Jabari ranked in just the 30th percentile in the league on isolation points per play. Despite this, there’s reason for optimism. Anecdotally, Parker’s RPS (rimouts per shot) seemed quite high, and I’d be curious to see his Kobe assist numbers; as much as he has struggled to shoot consistently as a pro, the eye test would suggest he’s more likely to become a consistent perimeter shooter than someone like Giannis, whose more inconsistent mechanics led to an uncomfortable number of bricks and airballs last season. His structurally sound stroke and high free throw percentage point to a player who could shoot better, and the face that he’s been a high-30s three point shooter in high school and college suggest he has the touch to stretch out to the longer NBA line. Optimists should also note that Anthony Davis ranked even lower than Parker on isolation efficiency, and Parker’s plays ended with free throws at almost double the percentage Davis’s did last year. If his shooting percentage ticks up, that compounded with his driving ability would force defenses to bend towards him, opening up cutting lanes and more space for shooters on the perimeter. The real question is whether Parker will make those passes.

Across the board, Parker’s low assist statistics point to a player who hasn’t used his acute passing ability to put players in position to score. His assist numbers were especially low during his lone season at Duke, particularly compared to a list of other highly-touted small forwards. The good news is that Parker has appeared to be a willing passer in Milwaukee, averaging just as many passes per game as Khris Middleton despite receiving almost 15 fewer passes per game. The only other primary ball handler who averaged more passes made than received was Giannis, the patron saint of unselfishness according to Jason Terry. Passes in themselves aren’t indicative of good or bad offense, but his assist numbers illuminate my earlier point. Parker averaged only 1.7 ast/game, and only had 3 potential assists per game. In comparison, Middleton averaged 7.0 potential assists per game and even Greg Monroe had 4.0/game.

Here, he has the opportunity to create something in isolation for his teammates. Instead, he spends the possession motionless on the perimeter while trying to shovel the ball to a teammate.

Still, Parker’s high basketball IQ and passing vision should mean he’s able to find people off the dribble and on the perimeter. Consistent with the Bucks’ broader aversion for the pick-and-roll, Jabari rarely operated out of P&R sets last year, but Jabari was able to find roll men with passes that should result in baskets. Here, he pays off a 4-5 P&R by firing a pass to Miles Plumlee, who fumbles the exchange before connecting on a hook shot.

Same goes for this play with Greg Monroe, where Monroe’s defender sags back and Parker rides Evan Fournier’s hip, baiting the roll defender into staying with him just long enough to find Greg Monroe slithering to the rim.

While Jabari has the vision and a willingness to share the ball, whether the Bucks will put Jabari into situations for him to handle it in P&R is another question. As Frank and Eric discussed on last week’s podcast, Miles Plumlee whipped out the “up-tempo” and “more pick and rolls” platitudes after the first day of training camp. But the Bucks also ranked near the bottom of the league in plays finished by P&R ball-handlers or roll men, and it stands to reason that guys like Giannis, Matthew Dellavedova and Michael Carter-Williams will come before him in the P&R pecking order. As a result, any analysis of Parker’s results on those plays will require some salt.

For a player frequently categorized as a power forward, it’s noteworthy that Parker finished more plays as a P&R ball-handler (67) than roll man (55), and overall his numbers were far more encouraging initiating sets than finishing them as a roll man. Parker ranked sixth on the team in plays where he served as the primary ball handler in pick-and-roll; he nearly ranked eighth, with OJ Mayo and Greivis Vasquez (!) only several possessions behind despite significantly fewer minutes. Like his isolation statistics, the results...well, they show room for improvement. He shot only 37.7% in those instances, with far fewer plays ending in free throws than on his iso plays. However, few of the Bucks ball handlers shot well. Giannis ranked highest at 47% and 0.81 PPP, but everyone else settled in around 41-43%. Then again, Rudy Gay shot the best in the league among those with at least 50 possessions, so it’s possible the Kings crowdsourced a virus to infect that NBA stats page.

It may not fall directly under the category of “playmaking”, but Parker was also incredibly efficient on post-ups last season. The Bucks ran post-up plays at the fourth highest rate in the league, albeit to middling efficiency that ranked in the lower half. Don’t blame for Parker, though: his 1.0 PPP mark put him in the 87th percentile of post-up efficiency. He drew free throws on almost 1/5th of those possessions too. While post-ups certainly aren’t en vogue in modern NBA offenses, there were plenty of times last year where Middleton bodied up his man on the wing en route to a contested turnaround jumper, leading to an efficiency only slightly above average. Slot a few more of those possessions to Parker — especially if he has a smaller wing defender on him -- and opponents may have to start sliding over a help defender, which should open up easy passing lanes to the perimeter. Again, Parker only used post-ups on 7% of his possessions, so don’t expect it to become a key part of his attack, but it’s another weapon in his arsenal.

At this point, it’s difficult to discern an actual area of focus the Bucks should use Parker in to maximize whatever playmaking ability he has. His limited experience in the role doesn’t speak to any optimum way as of yet, so the best solution may be finding a middle ground through up-tempo play and getting him the ball on the move.

The Bucks excelled in transition, particularly once Giannis took over point guard last year. With 246 total points on the break (26th in the NBA), Jabari wasn’t quite as dynamic in transition as Giannis (8th), but he did score almost as efficiently. Jabari’s 1.21 PPP ranked in the NBA’s 75th percentile, his highest ranking outside of post-ups last year. His ability to rip down a rebound and take it coast to coast or find shooters before the defense sets up is unique for his size. Fans will remember his ferocious finishes at the rim fondly, but those jams also mean defenses will wind up leaving shooters open on the perimeter to prevent an easy bucket at the rim. Here, Parker recognizes the Wizard’s lackadaisical defense and propels towards the hoop before dishing out to Middleton in the corner.

Above it leads to an open corner three, though it should be noted that Parker has shown a penchant for making passes after getting up in the air along the baseline —often times it leads to a useful corner kickout, but at times Parker appears to get up in the air without having a great idea of what he’s going to do next. Still, the threat of his finishing means Parker can capitalize on a defender’s fear and find trailing players before the defense can get set. The clip below shows Parker finding Monroe before Vucevic can recover out to him. This isn’t likely to be Monroe that often, but envisioning this with a perimeter chucker like Teletovic is enticing.

Perhaps the Bucks still don’t envision Parker as someone handling the ball very much. If that’s the case, they would be wise to use Parker’s shiftiness and quick first dribble to their advantage by getting him the ball near the elbow as he starts to cut towards the basket. Parker with a full head of steam is far more dangerous than at a standstill, and he’s regularly made defenders look foolish.

Here, his rapid acceleration towards the basket forces help defenders to slide over, creating space for someone like Greg Monroe to occupy and easily score after Jabari slips him the ball.

The second half of that vine shows how Parker can use that same speed to finish at the basket. Here too, he could’ve dumped off to Monroe for another easy lay-in. Whether he’ll have the wherewithal to fire the whip-smart passes someone like Draymond Green does while barreling into the paint remains to be seen, but he’s shown the ability to find players in the paint and on the perimeter. Now, it’s just a matter of making the right read at the right time:

Ultimately, Parker’s playmaking propensity relies on the Bucks’ developmental direction and Jabari’s willingness to learn. As Brett Koremenos laid out in the same podcast mentioned above,

“If Jabari really wants to be a playmaker, and does that, you can train him to do it. But if Jabari doesn’t have the mentality to want to make plays for his teammates, then you just kinda gotta roll with it. You gotta understand that that’s just what he is. It doesn’t mean that he’s a worse player or a worse person, it just means that’s who he is, it’s how he’s been built as a basketball player and you can either try to shove a square peg into a round hole, or you can try to find a square hole to put it in.”

Thus far, Parker feels more like a square peg, but it would be unwise to think of the playmaker/non-playmaker divide as a strict dichotomy. Still just 21 years old, Parker remains fairly undefined, but with an expanded role, we’ll hopefully find out this season what shape fits Parker and the Bucks best.