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Jabari Parker finding groove in Washington
Jabari Parker was one of the most highly-touted prospects to ever come out of Duke University. Scouts called him a generational talent, one of the most skilled forwards to ever enter the draft, and the most sure-thing out of all of the prospects in the 2014 NBA Draft. Drafted second overall that year, the Bucks, and many others, believed Milwaukee had a future perennial All-Star in Parker.
The potential and hype that Parker brought to the Bucks unfortunately came to a sudden halt way too early in his career. On December 15, 2014 against the Phoenix Suns, Parker was driving to the basket on the fast break, he slid awkwardly, and his left knee buckled. Parker tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee, ending his rookie season in Milwaukee much earlier than expected.
The road to recovery was not going to be easy for a 19-year old. Parker famously hiked in the Andes Mountains in Peru in order to build stamina, using unique rehabilitation concepts to get back on the court as soon as possible. He would miss the beginning of his second season, but showed resilience in returning to NBA action less than a year later. Parker played 76 games in the 2015-16 season, averaging 14.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Parker showed even more promise in his third season, putting together a fringe All-Star campaign of 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 49.0% shooting and 36.5% from 3-point. He became a focal part of the Bucks’ offense, with the skill and athleticism to score against anybody and make plays like few 6’8” or taller players can.
Unfortunately, that career year only lasted 51 games. On February 8, 2017, Parker’s left knee buckled as he drove to the rim in a home game against the Heat. Parker tore his ACL in the same knee for the second time in three years. It was devastating for him and the Bucks organization after he had come back and played at such a high level following his first ACL injury.
After another long road to recovery, Parker bounced back in less than a year once again. Returning after the All-Star break, he would come off the bench for the Bucks in 2017-18. Parker played in 31 games and competing in the playoffs for the first time. That season, Giannis Antetokounmpo came onto the scene as one of the NBA’s best players. Eric Bledsoe was acquired from Phoenix and became a focal point of the team’s offense. Khris Middleton continued to show his future All-Star capabilities. All of that, among other developments, left Parker’s future in Milwaukee in doubt.
Parker, now 24, has fond memories of his time in Milwaukee, but that part of his NBA journey, especially his career year in 2016-17, was overshadowed by his unfortunate injuries. The narrative was that he was always hurt and that he was never going to be able to contribute consistently. Once Parker’s rookie contract expired, Milwaukee decided not to match the Chicago Bulls’ contract offer. Parker, who grew up in Chicago, headed home for the 2018-19 season.
Parker’s only season with the Bulls was certainly part of his journey too. In the team’s first 24 games this season, he started 17 games, averaging 16.9 points and 8.0 rebounds in 34.2 minutes per game. After head coach Fred Hoiberg was fired following a 5-19 start, associated head coach Jim Boylen was named interim head coach.
Boylen immediately pulled Parker from the starting lineup and essentially stopped playing him by the fifth game of his tenure. Parker did not play in 17 of Chicago’s 30 games with Boylen as head coach before being traded to the Wizards. Critics said he was unplayable, yet the Wizards saw a player riding the bench in Chicago who needed a change of scenery.
“I think that’s an underestimated point of view,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks says of Parker coming to D.C. “A lot of times it doesn’t work out for you in a certain place for whatever reason. It’s nothing against what they were doing, it just wasn’t a fit.”
Few have seen the ebbs and flows of Parker’s season quite like Bobby Portis. They’ve been teammates all season long and had already developed a strong relationship in Chicago. Portis was one of the leaders of the Bulls before the trade, and he saw what Parker went through first-hand.
“It’s crazy – just to see the turnaround,” Portis says. “Seeing him come from Chicago not in a happy situation. Then being here and having coaches who really believe in his game, I think that’s really rejuvenating for him.”
Since the trade, Parker has averaged 14.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, shooting 56.0% from the field in 17 games. In 27.1 minutes per game, the Wizards have outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions with Parker on the court. With Parker off the court, the Wizards are being outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions.
“So far, to tell you the truth,” Parker said. “[Coach Brooks] has done a good job of implementing me, and I’m proud of that because I do more than just one thing, and it just feels good to get in those positions. It does, in a way, feel like I was in Milwaukee.”
Parker has thrived in Washington as one of the team’s main playmakers. With Bradley Beal anchoring the first unit, Brooks has relied on Parker to help the second unit get going. Since acquiring Parker and Portis, the Wizards have scored 112.7 points per 100 possession, sixth in the NBA. They rank first in true shooting percentage (58.8%), third in points per game (117.5), fourth in assist percentage (65.2%), and sixth in free throw shooting (81.1%). Parker and Portis have also added a boost on the boards, improving the Wizards’ rebound percentage from 46.6% (29th in the NBA) before February 8 to 49.2% (19th) during the last 17 games.
Parker never quite had a chance to reach his potential in Milwaukee and Chicago, but he still has a chance to reach his potential in the right situation. He confidently boasts about his athleticism and that his 72.4% shooting around the rim since coming to Washington is among league leaders. Turnovers have been an issue, but Parker has vowed to clean those up and do whatever it takes to take care of the ball, especially late in games.
“I don’t think he’s reached the level he’s going to continue to get to,” Brooks said. “He’s been nothing but a great worker here. I don’t look at him as a ‘3’ or ‘4’ or ‘5,’ he’s a point player. He can play just about any position on the floor.”
“I love what he is capable of doing,” Beal said of Parker. “He is very versatile. He can play mid-post, post, play on the wing. We can put him anywhere, so I definitely have enjoyed having him and he is a key to our success moving forward for sure.”
For the time being, Parker is enjoying his time in D.C., the third stop on his NBA journey. He likes the way Brooks has used him, and he’s found the leadership of both Brooks and Beal admirable.
“It’s been playing really good so far,” Parker said. “I love being here, I love just the people around here. Just professionals, they treat you like an adult. They hold you accountable, and if you’re not doing it, you get rewarded or you don’t.”
Recency bias will always dominate the latest opinions and hot takes, and many associate Parker’s reputation with his benching in Chicago. Still, it’s hard to ignore the potential Parker still has at the young age of 24, especially considering how highly-touted he was coming out of Duke. His injuries certainly impeded his development early on in his career, but Parker doesn’t shy away from the injuries that most people in his situation would not want to openly talk about.
When asked if he feels like it’s nice to be in a place where people don’t think about his injury history, Parker said he doesn’t look at it that way. He can’t just ignore his past and what made him stronger. Tearing his ACL twice in three seasons made him into who he is today.
“It’s just who I am,” Parker says. “No matter how far I get into my career, even if I get hurt again, it’s just a part of who I am. On the flip, I’m a warrior, I’m a soldier, I get up. As many times as I fell, I’ve still gotten up, and that’s way more rewarding to me than any other thing that I’ve ever accomplished, and I’m proud of that. Even though that’s the stigma, nobody can deny that I come back two times better every time.
“Those things shouldn’t be overlooked because one day other people are going to have those same issues. People in life have those issues – ups and downs – and I’m just a trailblazer to show whatever you do, you always get up. No matter how far you fall, you always get up.”