Last season, Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker was enjoying the best season of his three-year NBA career, averaging 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest. It was a validating breakout year for the No. 2 pick in the 2014 Draft.
But then everything came crashing down on him.
After playing 51 games with the club, Parker, who was just 21 years old at the time, tore his left ACL for the second time.
He has been out rehabbing the knee since February (when the injury occurred). At 20-16, the Bucks have fared decently without him, but Parker is slated to return in the near future.
In fact, he took part in a five-on-five scrimmage with the Wisconsin Herd, Milwaukee’s G-League affiliate, on New Year’s Day.
“He’s moving really well, jumping, shooting the ball really well and he’s only going to get better,” said Herd guard James Young via Steve Clark of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “From where he was to where he is now is a big improvement.”
“It’s exciting. It’s exciting for our team to be able to play with him and it’s exciting for him to be back in the flow,” Herd coach Jordan Brady said. “Primarily for him, it’s to get that 5-on-5 so that he can get that conditioning level back up before he’s cleared to play and then also to get back into the rhythm and flow of playing 5-on-5 basketball.”
“One of the reasons to have a developmental league team is to help rehab players who are coming off of injury, and anything the NBA club needs we’re happy to do that for him,” Brady continued. “The Bucks have a timeline for his rehab and treatment and he’s getting closer (to playing in a game). He’s making really good progress. To me, he’s looking stronger every time I see him.”
It was the third time in the last two weeks that Parker practiced with the Herd.
Although the Bucks have not announced a specific return date for Parker, it seems as though he’s trending in the right direction.
When he returns, the Bucks have a real chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, even though they'll most likely have to deal with the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.
A remarkable starting five
When Parker returns, he will presumably eventually join a starting five that includes Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson.
Reigning rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon as well as Tony Snell, Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova will likely continue to be rotational options off the bench.
Antetokounmpo is having an MVP-caliber year, averaging 29.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per contest. Middleton is putting up 20.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists and Bledsoe is averaging 18.6 points, 4.2 boards and 4.4 dimes per contest. Henson has added 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Therefore, on paper, Milwaukee’s starting five will perhaps become the best overall in the Eastern Conference.
One of the most important aspects that Milwaukee’s future roster with Parker will provide is a great deal of versatility. Coach Jason Kidd has a lot of options when it comes to Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Parker specifically.
If opposing teams play small, Kidd could elect to place Brogdon in the backcourt alongside Bledsoe while Middleton holds down the three, Parker mans the four and Antetokounmpo plays the five. Based on his height and wingspan, the Greek Freak could literally play anywhere on the floor, including at center, where he'd be an absolute nightmare to defend.
Parker has shown the ability to play either small forward or power forward. In many ways, he was caught in the middle before last season. At 6’8”, he is undersized to be a power forward, but didn’t previously didn’t possess the supreme athleticism or perimeter shooting ability to be a small forward. Last season, he shot 36.5 percent from three, up from 25.7 percent the season before, and proved to be a threat in that regard, thus expanding his game.
Although he still has room to improve defensively, Parker will be able to play both forward positions for Kidd, which should allow the coach to experiment with all sorts of rotations.
Stacking up against the best in the East
So far, the Bucks have gone 2-5 against the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors combined.
However, with Parker back, they will match up much better with each team.
The Celtics have shown a complete inability to defend Antetokounmpo this season in the two meetings between the teams. Since Bledsoe, Middleton and Parker will all now be in the mix, Boston’s coaching staff will now not only have to game plan for limiting Antetokounmpo, but also for Bledsoe, Middleton and Parker, any of whom could go off on any given night.
Boston starters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as well as sixth man Marcus Smart are all regarded as plus-defenders and the Celtics are a stellar defensive team, but they simply will not have enough manpower to guard four different players with individual 30-plus point potential. Plus, since the Celtics like to play small at times and big at others, the Bucks will now have an ability to mix and match with either Henson or Brogdon.
Parker’s presence should also help Milwaukee defend Cleveland’s multi-faceted offensive attack. In three games played against Cleveland this year, the Bucks have gone 1-2, but have been awful on the defensive end of the court, giving up 116, 124 and 116 points respectively. Allowing that many points is simply not sustainable in terms of success, especially in a potential seven-game playoff series. Like the Celtics, Cleveland boasts the ability to go small or go big and the Cavaliers essentially have a former All-Star team on their roster.
With Isaiah Thomas back, the Bucks will have to worry about another star. Assuming that Antetokounmpo will defend James, Kidd could decide to think outside the box and place Middleton, a taller defender than Bledsoe, on Thomas, who has historically struggled against taller defenders based on his diminutive, 5’9” frame. If Cleveland continues to start Kevin Love at center, Brogdon could even replace Henson in the starting five, thus creating a better matchup for Milwaukee. Since Henson struggled in past meetings in terms of defending the perimeter-oriented Love, placing Parker or even Antetokounmpo on him would most likely be a much more beneficial matchup for the Bucks.
Since the Raptors rely mainly on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to lead their team, Parker adds another dynamic option who could cause issues for Toronto on the offensive end. The Raptors have been abysmal defending power forwards this season and as shown last year, Parker is a legitimate 20-point-per-game NBA scorer. The Raptors have gotten in a number of high-scoring shootouts this season, so Milwaukee’s ability to add a proven scorer to a cast of talented starters will undoubtedly make them that much more dangerous.
Although he will undoubtedly be eased back into action, once he returns to full strength, Parker's addition could make the Bucks one of the most dangerous teams in the entire NBA and even a dark-horse candidate to win the Eastern Conference.