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Baby Steps: Checking On Jabari Parker’s Progress

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

With three weeks now gone by in his return to the Milwaukee Bucks‘ active roster, Jabari Parker has been limited in his playing time but showing flashes of why fans were so excited to see him come back.

On the surface, Jabari’s production has been pedestrian. Since returning on February 2, Parker is averaging 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in 18.0 minutes, and has played seven out of eight possible games (sitting out on a SEGABABA in Orlando on February 10). Still, the per-game numbers aren’t terribly important, since Jabari is playing fewer minutes than he probably will, has months of rust to shake off, and will be adjusting to rejoining a team that has a bonafide superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

(As an aside, that last detail is quite possibly the most important one to iron out for the Bucks. All indications are that Parker and the Bucks are very interested in being a part of one another’s future, even if contract negotiations during Parker’s restricted free agency window will be tense. However, as ESPN Milwaukee’s Eric Nehm (among others) has noted, Parker’s best position (power forward) is currently occupied by the aforementioned superstar (Giannis). Will moving one of them to small forward be viable? Is it possible to maximize both Giannis and Jabari on the court simultaneously, and will both of them be content if that’s not the case and their playing time needs to be staggered?)

Returning our focus to the short-term and how Jabari’s return to NBA basketball is going, we shouldn’t compare present-day Parker to his career averages. Instead, we should configure our expectations based on his previous ACL rehab return last time around.

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.

Now that we’re roughly halfway through this “first stage” of Parker’s return, it’s encouraging to see his raw numbers match, if not exceed, the benchmarks he set back in 2015-16. Furthermore, Parker’s advanced metrics (despite a small sample size) are reason for further optimism. In 126 minutes across seven games, Jabari’s per-36 averages are as follows: 18.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.9 blocks. He also has a PER of 16.0, a TS% of 0.559, a TRB% of 11.8, and is taking 19.5% of his shots from behind the arc (he’s 2/8 on threes, we told you this was a small sample size!). Still, all of these numbers are actually higher than his career averages, indicating that while he’s not yet fully operational Jabari is at least playing like himself.

For the remaining 24 games of the 2017-18 season (and however many playoff games the Bucks are able to compete in), the Bucks should be able to ramp up the amount of time Parker plays, which will help everyone figure out just how they fit in on this roster. This Bucks team is the most talented that Parker will have ever played on, and with Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, John Henson, Thon Maker, Sterling Brown, and Tony Snell still under contract, we could get an extended preview of what Milwaukee might look like next year. Of course, only if Jabari and the Bucks are able to come to a contract that works for both sides, or if general manager Jon Horst opts to match an offer from another team.

Can that crew work? The Bucks have a bevy of players who are “good,” but Giannis is the only true star, with Parker as the only realistic candidate for reaching that same plateau. And as ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes, the Bucks struggle mightily with Giannis on the bench, but there also might be a built-in solution for Prunty to try out:

With Jabari Parker back, the Bucks might have a remedy: playing all three of Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Parker during those precarious non-Freaky minutes. If that isn’t enough to reverse the trend, there might be no solution beyond dread and acceptance.

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But he [Parker] should improve with time and health, and these three have the collective firepower to at least sustain Milwaukee’s offense while Antetokounmpo rests. Parker has run some tidy pick-and-rolls around the foul line with Milwaukee’s centers. Bledsoe and Middleton work a nice two-man game, and Middleton has sizzled lofting midrangers over smaller guys after switches. Parker’s post game against similar mismatches is still a little rushed and out of control, but it should come.

(Smokin’) Joe Prunty has already instituted a widely-lauded rotation wrinkle, where Giannis exits the court at around the 6:00 mark in the first and third quarters, in order to get some early rest and return at the 1:00 mark in that same period. If the Bucks’ starters get off to a good start during their first shift, and the trio of Middleton, Parker, and Bledsoe is able to keep things afloat for the following five minutes until Giannis comes back to wreak havoc against bench players, Milwaukee could have a recipe for sustainable success for the foreseeable future.

So everything is great...as long as Parker is alright with coming off the bench. Briefly revising our earlier aside, this dynamic will change when Jabari inevitably is reinstalled in the starting lineup. This move will, theoretically, bump Snell to the bench, and kick games off with Bledsoe running point, Middleton as the nominal shooting guard, Henson (or Thon) as the center, and Giannis and Jabari playing as the forwards. It is difficult to expect this move to not hurt the starting unit’s defense (as Middleton’s lack of foot speed and Jabari’s overall defensive struggles will require additional effort from the other three) or the bench unit (particularly without Malcolm Brogdon, whose absence means that the best healthy reserve player is...Thon? Snell? Jason Terry? Sterling Brown?)

There’s a lot left for the Bucks to figure out, and not nearly as much time as we might like to see it through. With less than thirty games left on the schedule, the pressure is on everybody with the Milwaukee Bucks to find an approach that works for everybody, and then to navigate the offseason to maintain whatever momentum the team closes the season with. In the meantime, though, we should enjoy Parker finding his sea legs again, because he’s pretty fun to watch when he’s got it going.