Confident proclamations from Giannis Antetokounmpo about Jabari Parker’s future in Milwaukee turn out to have been premature: Saturday the Milwaukee Bucks rescinded the qualifying offer that gave them matching rights for any restricted free agency offer for Parker, paving the way for Parker to sign a reported two-year, $40 million contract with the Chicago Bulls:
Thus ends the tantalizing prospect of a fully realized Parker pairing with a fully realized Giannis Antetokounmpo to form one of the most terrifying forward duos in basketball. Parker’s NBA career to this point has been just massively unfair. His promising rookie season was cut short by an ACL tear after just 25 games, an injury that required surgery and a lengthy recovery period. Parker picked up more or less where he left off in his sophomore season, scoring 14 points a game on 49 percent shooting in 72 games, but the lost rookie season set him back, and he never found much of a comfort level defensively or from beyond the arc. But the breakthrough still came in year three, with Parker scoring over 20 points a game behind a huge jump in offensive efficiency—his three-point percentage jumped to 36.5 percent on a respectable 3.5 attempts per game—although his defense was still very much a work in progress. Parker is a bit of a tweener, probably better suited to playing power forward in the modern NBA, which made him a tricky fit next to Giannis on neurotic, Jason Kidd-led Bucks teams that were always infuriatingly reluctant to slide Giannis down a spot, to center, and embrace small ball.
At any rate, solutions to that organizational inflexibility would have to wait, because Parker tore the same ACL a second time in February 2017, costing him the final 31 games of that season and all but 31 games of last season, to say nothing of the reps and experience needed to mesh better on both ends with his Bucks teammates. It’s an underrated part of the way basketball players are evaluated—being good in the NBA is significantly about learning through repetition about your specific teammates and opponents, and not just how refined your skills are in general terms. Parker has phenomenal athletic gifts, even after two knee surgeries, but he’s spent an awful lot of his NBA career thus far watching basketball from the sidelines, or from the trainer’s room. The stretch of his career where he tailors his skills and athletic gifts to the specific NBA environment around him just hasn’t really happened yet.
It will be an interesting fit in Chicago. Lauri Markkanen is entrenched as the power forward of the future, and presumably Wendell Carter Jr. was selected to be the starting center, pinning Markkanen at the four. If the Bulls view Parker as a starter, he’ll have to do it as a small forward, where the improved shooting he showed over his last 80 or so games will have to hold up over a significant stretch before defenders bother tracking him outside of 18 feet. The good news is, Parker looked encouragingly active and engaged defensively in Milwaukee’s seven-game series loss to the Celtics in the playoffs, and at no point did he look athletically diminished. He’s still an explosive leaper and finisher with ridiculous ball-handling skills for a guy his size, with a smooth and developing jumpshot. There’s plenty of reason for optimism.
The Bulls are taking chances on unsure things, throwing $78 million over four years at Zach LaVine and now $20 million a season at Parker. Per Bobby Marks of ESPN, this signing wipes out their remaining cap room for this summer, space they might’ve otherwise used to soak up bad contracts from teams looking to get under the luxury tax, in exchange for draft assets. The second year of Parker’s contract in Chicago is a team option, a wise hedge against further injury, and an avenue for the Bulls to dump a big chunk of salary next summer if a max-level free agent shows a willingness to join the team. But if the Bulls are good enough to entice a premier free agent next summer, it will likely be at least in large part due to Parker’s abilities, and it’s very hard to imagine the Bulls being good enough to attract anyone serious if Parker is bad enough to warrant cutting loose after just one season. We’ll see.
No player in the NBA deserves a run of good luck more than Jabari Parker. A fresh start on a team gunning for nothing more serious than respectability, back in his hometown, could be just the ticket, and if Parker continues to develop the way he’s developed in fits and starts between catastrophic knee injuries, the Bulls will reap quite a reward.