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Crossroads 2017: Is Jabari Parker’s Ceiling High Enough?

Three seasons of NBA experience, two ACL rehabilitations, and one looming question: Can it work with Jabari in Milwaukee?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the many reasons why this summer is vitally important to the future of the Milwaukee Bucks is directly focused around a fourth-year lottery pick who just posted career-highs in every major statistical category. Jabari Parker, the Simeon High School phenom who wow’d scouts at Duke University and played his way into a second-overall selection in the NBA Draft, was supposed to be a star in the pros because of his explosive athleticism, offensive versatility, and ability to carry the scoring load.

With his rookie-year injury behind him, Jabari was well on his way to actualizing his potential. After 51 games, the 6’8” 250 lb. forward was averaging 20 points (on 16 shots), increased his three-point attempt rate by a factor of seven (while hitting on 36.5% of his 3.5 per-game attempts!), while also improving his rebounding, playmaking, foul-drawing, and virtually every other metric that isn’t defense-oriented. Parker was still bad at the stuff he was bad at, but starting to look really good at the stuff he was drafted to be good at.

After a second ACL tear (of the same knee ), seemingly everything surrounding Jabari is now in doubt. That is, of course, unless you’re Jabari Parker:

This must be noted: Jabari Parker’s optimism concerning his rehabilitation is astounding, and I could not admire him more for how he is approaching what must be a grueling experience. I know (on some level) how he felt the first time around, but I cannot imagine what re-doing all of that hard work feels like. It baffles me that he can be so positive, and I will be pulling for him forever. (And all of this comes before considering his level of awareness and social responsibility.)

The franchise, as they always have been, appears to be fully supporting Jabari and have given every indication that they plan on playing it safe while incorporating Parker into their future plans. In a back-and-forth with’s Steve Aschburner, Bucks GM Jon Horst had this to say: Last season, you had all your pieces together for a total of eight minutes -- the game in which Khris Middleton returned from his hamstring surgery was the game in which Jabari Parker tore his ACL again. How is Parker progressing?

JH: Physically, mentally, he is doing tremendous. His body looks fantastic. In terms of what we think Jabari will come back as, and I think Jabari believes, he will come back better, faster, stronger. If you saw him now, you would believe that.

How does that impact our season? We know going in we won’t have Jabari for a significant part. But like we did without Khris at the beginning of the season, we were able to weather that storm. There’s a storm. Jabari is a huge piece. But we think we can weather it. Parker went down in early February. Do you have an estimate for when he’ll be back?

JH: For Jabari and the Bucks, this is not about this year. This is about a 22-year-old kid who is one of the best young talents in the league, and making sure he comes back physically in the right way.

We all want Jabari to come back happy and healthy, and to continue to rain buckets down upon the Bucks’ opponents. But as with many things in life, we aren’t guaranteed to get what we want. There’s no telling that Jabari will actually regain his prior form (again).

But he might. In fact, let’s say that he does. Is that actually a good thing for the Bucks?

As an individual player, it’s hard to dislike anything that the 2016-17 version of Jabari offers on offense. While using a fair number of possessions (26.5% usage), Parker’s combination of athleticism and perimeter skill drove him to vastly improve both his scoring (21.4 points/36 minutes, up from 16.0 the year prior) and effective field goal percentage (53.0%, up from 49.8% in 2015-16), while significantly increasing his 3Par (21.9% vs. 3.9% from the year before). In short, Parker was becoming the all-around offensive forward the Bucks wanted to unleash next to their other über-versatile wings, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But like most conversations with Jabari Parker, this one ends up with two points jockeying for position over one another: what Jabari gives you on offense vs. what he gives up on defense. In his 2016-17 season, this dynamic was very much in play. When Parker was on the floor, the Bucks output an Offensive Rating of 109.2, which would rank in the top-half of the NBA but barely higher than the Bucks’ season total of 109.1. However, when Parker was on the floor, Milwaukee’s opponents delivered an Offensive Rating of 112.1, which is the equivalent of the 6th ranked Toronto Raptors offense. For those who are curious, opponents’ Offensive Rating fell to 107.3 when Parker was on the bench, which is the equivalent of the Sacramento Kings offense.

This disparity illustrates the conundrum of fitting Jabari Parker into a scheme that demands so much on defense. Of course, these metrics also summarize the entire season into one number, and that perhaps unfairly reflects poorly on Jabari with the amount of time that he missed. So let’s break it down further and try to see which games Jabari significantly impacted, for better and for worse.

(Editor’s Note: All of the work with data and numbers that follow are not meant to be scientific or precise. Instead, the methods described below are to develop an approximation of Jabari Parker’s overall impact, and to illustrate how that translates into wins. Please keep that in mind as you read along.)

To that end, I took the following steps. First, I manually calculated each team’s ORtg for each individual game in which Jabari played before his injury (Games 1 through 50). With those numbers, I determined the difference between the Bucks’ ORtg and that of their opponents, and compared it to Parker’s +/- for each individual game. Generally, I found that games in which the Bucks’ ORtg exceeded their opponents’ turned out well for Milwaukee, but Jabari’s individual +/- performance didn’t immediately correlate to that trend. So, I marked the games where Parker’s individual performance helped the Bucks deliver a worthwhile performance on offense (specifically, if Parker’s individual +/- was more than his +/- combined with the Bucks’ ORtg differential), and moved on to the second phase.

The second phase was to determine a rough measure of Parker’s efficiency. Plainly put, I compared Jabari’s percentage of Milwaukee’s points scored to his percentage of Milwaukee’s field goal attempts. If Parker’s portion of the team’s points outweighed that of his share of the shot attempts, his game was relatively efficient. If the opposite were true, then his efficiency was subpar. Once I had both the Bucks’ ORtg differential and an idea of whether or not Jabari was efficient for that game, I went ahead and compared everything that I had to see if there was a correlation.

To my surprise, the correlation I discovered was fairly strong. Out of the 50 games that I analyzed, there were 20 games in which Jabari’s overall performance was a net positive, and 30 in which it was not. Within those two subsections, there were relatively even distributions regarding games in which Jabari was efficient on offense (28 total), and those in which he was not (22 total). Of course, 50 games from one season is not the largest sample size, but it is the only sample we have available in which the most offensively advanced version (read: the version that shoots threes) of Jabari Parker exists. Within those different divisions, here is how the team fared:

Further analyzing the contributing factors within this 50 game sample shows further correlation between Jabari’s performance and the Bucks’ record. At the start of Game 51 last year, Milwaukee was 22-28. Parker had played in all 50 games. In each of their 22 wins, the Bucks’ average net ORtg differential was plus-14.2, and Parker’s personal +/- was plus-7.2. In their 28 losses, the team’s average net ORtg differential was minus-11.2, and Parker’s average +/- was a whopping minus-8.3. This would suggest that Jabari is a bellwether for the Bucks; he shows up in wins but struggles mightily in losses.

What’s more striking (to me at least) than the correlation between the Bucks’ wide swings in net ORtg is how closely Jabari’s personal +/- relates to game-by-game results, at least within this 50 game sample. When sorting Parker’s 2016-17 campaign by his individual +/-, there is a clear relationship between his personal outcomes and the team’s outcomes.

To set the stage for this analysis of Parker’s season, note that his aggregated +/- is minus-88 (or an average of minus-1.76). Already, we can tell that Parker is statistically a net-negative for the Bucks. Diving in further, we can see that he has 20 games with a +/- result above 0, and 20 games that are minus-6 (or worse). Here are Parker’s basic counting stats for each set of twenty games, and the Bucks’ record in those games:

Points awarded for consistency, I suppose, but points deducted for the stark difference in wins and losses. By no means is this a complete and definitive view on Jabari Parker’s contributions to the Bucks last season; however, there is some cause for concern when it comes to this question: If Jabari Parker ends up as little more than an efficient scorer, can the Bucks overcome his weaknesses to actually win games? So far, the answer appears to be a resounding “no.”

You may suspect that there’s more to Jabari Parker’s outlook than just his third season. You’d be right; no matter the numbers, Parker is still a 22-year old forward with all sorts of viable NBA-level skills, and the drive and outlook to come back from another significant injury. But if the success of a team featuring Parker lies in his ability to contribute in ways beyond just scoring, his most recent season does not exactly inspire confidence.

This would help explain why there has been no news regarding any sort of extension negotiations between Parker and the Bucks, even before considering that Jabari is rehabbing from his second ACL tear. In order to dispel the concerns surrounding his game and long-term fit, Parker has to become at least a neutral defensive player while remaining an above-average offensive one. That is a tall order.

Speaking of tall, the positional factor exacerbates the questions surrounding Parker’s NBA viability. As a 6’8” forward, Jabari is really hard to hide on defense, simply because he can be more easily targeted by players from multiple positions. By comparison, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Isaiah Thomas all share a basic reputation with Jabari Parker (great on offense, shaky on defense), but are hid more easily by their teammates because they happen to play the smallest spot on the floor. Sure, they’re still bad defenders and are going to get taken advantage of, but they’re far more likely to avoid the trap presented by a non-point guard initiating a P&R than Jabari, simply because they’re elsewhere on the floor.

We’ve seen Jabari grow into an impact player on offense. Statistically, his 2016-17 level of performance may never earn him All Star honors, but he’s made it clear that his brand of bucket-getting can help his team. It’s still possible, maybe even likely, that Jabari continues to grow beyond the offensive standard he set for himself last year. This would be a welcome development!

However, the drawbacks to Parker taking the court are just as evident: lineups featuring Jabari give up more points than they earn, which is literally how the winner of a basketball game is decided. Moreover, the idea that the contests Jabari participates in are driven by his direct contributions on offense and shortcomings on defense (perhaps more than any other player on the team) is gaining momentum, and not in the direction any of us want. Of course Parker will work on his weaknesses, but is it realistic to expect his defensive floor (never mind his ceiling) to move up after two torn ACLs in three years?

The most important question surrounding Jabari and the Bucks is this: if these trends can’t be reversed...what exactly is the equation that both includes Jabari Parker and results in winning basketball in Milwaukee?