By Bryan Toporek
Few players enter the 2017-18 NBA season with more at stake than Jabari Parker.
The Milwaukee Bucks forward was playing at a career-best level before suffering a second ACL tear in his left knee in early February. With per-game averages of 20.1 points on 49.0 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 triples and 1.0 steals in 33.9 minutes, he was quickly emerging as the Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Batman.
When Khris Middleton returned from a preseason hamstring injury that sidelined him for multiple months, the Bucks suddenly had the makings of the frisky low seed no contender would enjoy drawing in the first round.
On the night Middleton returned, however, disaster struck.
While driving to the basket in the middle of the third quarter against the Miami Heat, Parker planted his left leg and immediately collapsed to the floor in agony.
Bucks’ Jabari Parker helped off the floor after going down with non-contact knee injury pic.twitter.com/5qPs74fIFq
— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) February 9, 2017
Milwaukee originally diagnosed the injury as a left knee sprain, kindling hope that Parker somehow avoided a more calamitous fate. One day later, the team announced the worst-case scenario—a torn ACL in the knee he initially injured as a rookie—had indeed unfolded.
Heading into a contract year, Parker suddenly faced a daunting 12-month rehab and a new wave of uncertainty about his long-term NBA outlook. According to ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, Michael Redd and Danny Manning were the only two players ever to suffer two ACL tears in the same knee during their NBA careers prior to Parker. Both did so past the age of 30, however, making the 22-year-old’s situation unprecedented in NBA history.
To Parker’s credit, he’s undeterred from the daunting challenge that awaits.
“I don’t want to be the same player,” he told reporters in March in reference to his recovery. “I wouldn’t be myself if I don’t challenge myself to do better things, bigger things. I know I can be better.”
Can Parker make history by bouncing back from this latest injury as more than just a shell of his former self? That question will linger throughout the 2017-18 campaign as both he and the Bucks confront some critical decisions.
Where he can improve
Prior to his latest injury, Parker was a revelation for Milwaukee this past season.
The Duke product spent much of his sophomore campaign in 2015-16 rounding back into form following his first ACL tear, which limited his production before the All-Star break. In 2016-17, however, he showed no ill effects from that injury. He put up career-best numbers across the board while thriving more than ever in just about every play type, as the below chart from NBA Math illustrates. (The blue bars are his league-wide ranks on each play type in 2015-16, while the pink bars are for 2016-17.)
There’s room for Parker to be even more lethal offensively. As the chart illustrates, he dramatically bolstered his efficiency on spot-ups, handoffs, cuts and pick-and-rolls as a junior. Outside of spot-ups, though, the Bucks aren’t running nearly enough of the other three types of plays for him.
To wit: As a sophomore, Parker averaged 2.5 possessions per game coming off cuts, during which he scored 1.18 points per possession while shooting north of 60 percent from the field. This past season, he was even more effective using cuts—he scored 1.35 points per possession while shooting nearly 70 percent overall—but he only averaged 1.7 such possessions per game. With Giannis Antetokounmpo serving as Milwaukee’s primary ball-handler, there’s no excuse for Parker not to take advantage of his sneaky athleticism and pick up easy buckets on repeated baseline cuts.
In a video breakdown from January, BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Coach Nick highlighted off-ball movement as one area which the Bucks needed to exploit more with Parker.
Antetokounmpo-Parker pick-and-rolls could likewise be a deadly ingredient in Milwaukee’s offense, but Parker finished only 63 possessions as a roll man this past season. He wasn’t particularly efficient on those plays as a junior—he averaged just 0.92 points per possession on 47.9 percent shooting—but that could come over time as he and Antetokounmpo grow more accustomed to one another. He’s already brutally effective in transition, where he ranked among the 88th percentile league-wide while scoring 1.32 points per possession on 69.5 percent shooting.
Parker still has a ways to go defensively, as he ranked dead last among 81 power forwards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus this past season. His numerical grade in that metric was even worse the prior year, but he finished 71st among 74 power forwards that season thanks to even more ghastly outputs from Bobby Portis, Derrick Williams and Mirza Teletovic. Regardless, two bottom-five finishes in the past two years doesn’t speak highly about his defensive aptitude at this juncture of his career.
Armed with a near-7-foot wingspan, Parker has the requisite length to become disruptive on defense one way, but his pair of ACL tears may rob him of lateral quickness. Considering the Bucks have been forging their identity around defense ever since drafting Antetokounmpo in 2013, Parker’s deficiencies on that end of the court could call into question his long-term fit with the franchise. Then again, with Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker and Khris Middleton all profiling as above-average defenders (or better), they may be able to cover up Parker’s weaknesses.
Before Milwaukee can worry about that, though, Parker must first prove he’s able to bounce back from this latest injury with no lasting side effects.
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Can he overcome the injury?
Medically, the deck is stacked against Parker returning to form after his second ACL tear. According to a 2011 study from doctors at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the failure rate is significantly higher on a second ACL reconstruction compared to a first.
“If I reconstruct the ACL in your knee, and you go back to sports, and three years later you pivot on a basketball court and tear it again, that subsequent surgery often does not have results equal to the original surgery,” said Dr. Rick W. Wright, an orthopedic surgeon who was the study’s principal investigator, in a statement at the time. “In a previous study, we found that the strongest predictor for a bad outcome after ACL surgery was whether that surgery was the initial reconstruction or a subsequent procedure.”
A 2015 study published in the Archives of Bone and Joint Surgery noted the success rate on an initial ACL reconstruction can be as high as 97 percent, but “satisfactory outcomes in revision surgery” can fall to 76 percent. Dr. Craig Levitz, the chief of orthopedic surgery at South Nassau Community Hospital in New York, echoed that sentiment to Newsday, saying, “While technical advancements have led to 95 percent of athletes getting back to their previous level after ACL reconstruction, the results of what we call revision ACL surgery are significantly worse.”
Even if Parker overcomes the physical hurdles involved with returning from a second ACL tear, he’ll also have mental obstacles to confront. As he told Jordan Ritter Conn of The Ringer this past winter, that was one of the most difficult aspects of his first recovery.
“I was playing with fear,” he said. “I was thinking all the time: ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ That’s one of my weaknesses. I’ve always been a people-pleaser. I just had to let go.”
Given the non-contact nature of Parker’s latest ACL injury, it would only be natural for him to second-guess himself every time he planted his left leg on a drive to the basket. He’s committed to tackling those mental demons head-on, though.
“It’s definitely mental,” he told ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell in July. “Especially if it happens to you more than once. But actually, me getting hurt the second time has helped me embrace [rehab and recovery] stronger than I did the first one. It gave me that mentality [of] I don’t give a f— no more. Excuse my language, but I just don’t. If it happens [again], it happens. But I’m not going to let that hold me back. And if it happens again, I’m just going to do the same stuff I was before.”
What should the Bucks do?
With Parker unlikely to return to action until February, according to the team’s press release at the time of his injury, Milwaukee must weigh whether it can bank on him as part of its long-term future.
Between now and Oct. 16, the Bucks can sign Parker to an extension worth anywhere up to nearly five years and $150 million. If they don’t reach an agreement with him by then, he’ll become a restricted free agent next July.
Unfortunately for Parker, the confluence of the ACL tear and a sudden lack of cap space around the league are conspiring against him.
If not for his latest injury, the Bucks very well might have shelled out beaucoup bucks on an extension for him. Even if he didn’t receive a full five-year max deal, an annual salary north of $20 million was almost assuredly awaiting him either this fall or next summer. Given his lengthy timetable for recovery, however, Milwaukee now has little incentive to sign him to an extension unless he agrees to a major discount. If Parker comes back healthy, looks like his old self and signs a massive offer sheet with another team next July, the Bucks can always match it.
In May, then-general manager John Hammond told reporters, “As far as his future in Milwaukee, we think it is long term. That’s the goal. That always has been the goal.” He added, however, that extension negotiations may “come from different directions right now as far as what we can do with him” in the wake of his latest injury.
It remains unclear whether new general manager Jon Horst feels the same way about Parker. Though he told NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner that he expects the Chicago native to “come back better, faster, stronger,” he also said, “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.”
Does Horst not want to rush Parker back because he envisions him as a franchise cornerstone moving forward? Or does he want to play it cautious to reduce other teams’ chances of seeing him in action, therefore potentially driving down his price in free agency next summer?
As Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported, the Bucks weren’t necessarily sold on Parker even prior to his second ACL tear. Heading into the trade deadline, they were reportedly open to moving him before his injury effectively eviscerated his trade value.
“His name definitely came up, and it was obvious they’d have a steep price, but they were willing to talk about him,” one league executive told Deveney.
Fueling their willingness to include him in trade talks was concern over his fit with Antetokounmpo, according to Deveney. In the 1,207 minutes those two shared the court this past season, the Bucks had a minus-1.7 net rating. When the Greek Freak paired with Middleton, meanwhile, Milwaukee outscored its opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions.
So, to recap: Heading into a contract year, Parker is facing a comeback from a near-unprecedented medical situation. Once he returns, he’ll have limited time to convince the Bucks and/or other potential free-agent suitors that he’s worthy of a big-money, multiyear contract. If he endures any setbacks along the way, he could be staring at a one-year, prove-it deal next summer.
Can Parker defy the odds and bounce back better than ever? That’s one of the more fascinating subplots of the upcoming 2017-18 season.