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What to Expect: The Return of Jabari Parker

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!’s Jabari Parker!

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday night victory over Philadelphia, forward Jabari Parker joined the telecast to make a special announcement.

Immediately, visions of baseline baskets and bully-ball buckets began to dance in fans’ heads, but allowing these fantasies to supplant reasonable expectations could set us up for disappointment. Not because we don’t believe in Jabari, but because we don’t want to put too much on his plate too soon.

Under normal circumstances, it would be all but impossible to accurately predict what sort of role Parker will assume or how he will contribute to the team. Particularly with the upheaval that has ensnared the Bucks this season, it isn’t as easy as simply plugging in the pieces and letting them go to work.

There are, however, a few threads that we can tug at that may give us more reason for optimism than expected. For one, the Bucks’ lack of depth at center should keep floor near the basket relatively spacious, something that a master slasher/cutter like Parker could take ample advantage of. Thon Maker’s flaws aside, his status as a plus-shooting 5 helps clear the lane, and John Henson’s activity level on the elbows (and overall passing acumen) has never been higher.

Another factor in Parker’s favor is the relatively flexible demand for forward minutes. Currently, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are drawing the vast majority of playing time at the 3 & 4, and their season-long presence on the minutes played leaderboard has irked fans more than once. Tony Snell and Sterling Brown will continue to pitch in at the SF spot, but are more than capable of playing SG in lineups that value switchability. In seeking to reduce their load, interim head coach Joe Prunty will be able to mix up his rotation with another viable forward (Parker), all while maintaining the team’s current goal of winning games and not becoming over-reliant on Parker.

Speaking of Prunty, the new life that has seemingly been breathed into the Bucks will likely benefit Parker upon his reintegration. General manager Jon Horst mentioned as much when discussing what sorts of differences fans could expect from Prunty:

“I think what you’re going to see with Coach Prunty and Sean (Sweeney) and the rest of the staff is I think you’re going to see a group of guys who are going to simplify the things that we do offensively and defensively so that we can really focus on the things that our guys are good at, really try to accentuate their strengths and kind of minimize some of the weaknesses of our team.”

Jabari’s defense is infamous across the Bucks’ fanbase, but he was undoubtedly a disastrous fit with former coach Jason Kidd’s ultra-aggressive approach. Now with Kidd out of the picture, the scheme that he (and Sean Sweeney, who’s still around) seems to have followed him out the door, and all of a sudden there is a far more conventional defensive approach in Milwaukee. Parker may still struggle on that end, but immediately his outlook is improved based on what he will be asked to do on defense.

So we have a roster that’s ready for Parker to plug in without putting any undue stress on him, and a coach who seems to be invested in simply letting his players play. Already, the environment Jabari is returning to is friendlier than the one he left. More than anything else, though, we (and the Bucks) have the luxury of having seen this movie once before. Nobody will forget that Parker has suffered two nearly-identical ACL injuries (particularly when the topic of his contract situation comes up), but in the short-term we get to refer to a sort of road map left behind from his previous rehab.

Parker originally got hurt in mid-December in 2015 and came back to the court in early-November of 2016. While he played 76 games of the 2015-16 season, he only began playing full-time minutes after about fifteen games. For the first few weeks of the season, the Bucks were overcautious with Parker, and limited his playing time accordingly.

Here are Jabari’s raw per-game averages for his first fourteen games back from the first ACL injury: 9.5 points (on 47.0% shooting, including zero made threes), 3.8 rebounds, and less than 1 assists, steals, and blocks, all in roughly 23 minutes per night. This is what we can reasonably expect from Jabari for his first ten games or so.

On the year for 2015-16, Parker ended up averaging 14.1 points (on 49.3% shooting), 5.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and a combined 1.5 blocks/steals, while playing 31.7 minutes per contest. This might be setting the bar too high for Parker’s end-of-season averages, but these numbers are also far below his 2016-17 numbers of 20.1 points (including 36.5% from three), 6.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 33.9 minutes/game.

The reality is that the Bucks are, for all intents and purposes, rolling right now. Giannis is still an MVP candidate, Middleton is filling a number of different roles, and while they have their ups-and-downs, both Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon have shown the ability to push the team to higher levels as well. The Bucks won’t be asking Parker to be Superman anytime soon, but the beauty is that they don’t have to ask anything of him right now. Whatever Jabari provides is a major bonus for the team...and luckily, Parker appears to be motivated.

It was that first dozen-plus games in 2016 where Jabari Parker was afforded the opportunity to find his legs and ease back into the flow of NBA basketball. This time, after getting hurt in February 2017 and now launching the comeback nearly a full year later, it’s reasonable to expect Parker to follow a similar approach. What that means is, after a dozen games or so when March 2018 rolls around, we should all be paying attention.