Milwaukee Bucks: The Quiet Arrival of Jabari Parker

Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker has supercharged his play in recent weeks, and yet not many have noticed. We cover all he’s done, what this means, and where he’s headed.

From his Sports Illustrated cover days as the “best high school player since LeBron James” to an All-American freshman season at Duke to being the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Jabari Parker was always the player destined to save the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee had struggled to a league-worst 15-67 record the year before and boasted few assets outside of combo guard Brandon Knight and a lanky Greek kid with an impossible-to-pronounce name.

Cut to today, and you can see just how much has changed in such a short time regarding the Bucks. Major roster turnover has occurred, save for the “lanky Greek kid” whose name should really be more easily enunciated league-wide by now.

His steady and explosive rise to stardom has given Giannis Antetokounmpo the reins to the franchise, as evidenced in his $100 million extension, but Jabari is right behind him in terms of importance to the team.

Prior to this season, many thought Parker would make a strong case for the Most Improved Player award due in part to the absence of Khris Middleton but also by way of his own improvement.

It’s still early, but Jabari seems to have done just that, going from per-game averages of 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists to 19.4 points, 5.6 boards, and 2.1 dimes. Even though the basic statistical improvement is usually enough to qualify for an award like MIP, what’s more important is how Jabari is getting his points.

I mentioned several times this offseason how Parker’s offensive repertoire was limited beyond simply his athleticism, which is understandable given his youth.

Jabari has up until this point made his impact offensively via off-ball cuts and the occasional dribble-drive. Developing a reliable jump shot, the likes of which he flashed towards the end of last year, should be near the top of his to-do list in terms of growth.

Anyone who has followed the Bucks for any amount of time has either heard or repeated the “if/when he develops a jump shot, look out” line regarding both Giannis and Jabari, but the general consensus was that Parker would be more apt to add the shot to his game.

During his lone season at Duke, Parker hit 36 percent of his three-pointers, but was seemingly put on the notorious Jason Kidd Diet last year, attempting just seven threes prior to the All-Star Break.

With so much attention focused on his outside game this offseason, it looks like Jabari has taken steps to add the long ball to his game. He’s shooting nearly 37 percent on over three attempts per game from behind the arc, and his reluctance to pull the trigger is gone.

He’s also shooting over 40 percent from the corner, a prime location for drive-and-dish kick-outs from Giannis.

According to NBA.com, all of Parker’s three-point attempts this season have been assisted, and 71 percent of them have come with a defender more than six feet away, or “wide open”. This is even better to hear on top of just the improved percentages; it shows that Jabari isn’t hunting bad looks for the sake of getting three-point looks.

In addition to his burgeoning outside stroke, Parker has maintained his powerful finishing ability and driving game. He’s simply too quick for a lot of other big men, and his hang time allows him to finish at all sorts of angles.

The finer elements of touch around the hoop leave a little to be desired, as he shoots just 26 percent from the mid-post area of three-to-ten feet, but these type of shots aren’t often mastered by 21 year-olds.

Where Parker truly excels is in open space – there aren’t any 250-pounders outside of Cleveland who can move the way Parker does. Scoring at 1.33 points per possession in transition opportunities, he ranks in the 83rd percentile league-wide.

Of course, shooting wasn’t the only concern with Jabari’s game last season. Defensively, his presence was a big reason why the Bucks’ defense slipped to a 23rd ranking last year in what amounted to his first full season.

The Bucks have rejuvenated their defense this season, now ranking eighth with a decent 102.4 defensive rating, but that alone isn’t enough to say Parker has improved. Removing Greg Monroe from the starting lineup in favor of the more defensive-oriented John Henson obviously helped, as the frontcourt combination of Monroe and Parker got absolutely torched at times last year.

Basic counting stats won’t give us a very clear picture either – although he has the vertical and quickness, Jabari just doesn’t have the positional awareness or profile of a prolific shot-blocker or pickpocket.

The modern NBA’s power forward position is one of the most versatile in league history, ranging from your low-post brutes like Zach Randolph all the way to small-ball wings like Harrison Barnes. In order to play the minutes Jabari does, he needs to be able to defend all types of actions.

Against the pick and roll, Jabari is yielding just 0.71 points per possession, which places him in the 75th percentile league-wide and behind only Miles Plumlee on the Bucks. On the other side of the coin, opponents have scored 1.12 points per possession facing Parker in isolation settings, which puts him very close to the bottom in that respect.

In terms of affecting misses, Parker’s performance last year was downright terrible. Opponents shot 4.6 percent better than their normal averages when defended by Jabari, including 7.6 percentage points greater within 10 feet of the hoop.

This season however, has seen a complete reversal of last. Even though opponents still shoot 0.5 percent better from inside of 10 feet, Jabari is now holding shooting percentages 1.1 percent lower overall when he is the primary defender.

Defensive statistics by nature aren’t perfect and prone to noise, but the numbers seem to convey a definite increase in awareness on Parker’s part this season.

So, if Jabari has been on such a tear recently, why hasn’t he received more national attention? For one, the Bucks’ small market makes it increasingly difficult for any Milwaukee player to reach the big stage – Thursday night’s TNT game was one of the only instances the Bucks will play on national television this season.

For another, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been doing some seriously special things this year, commanding lots of media attention in the process, and rightfully so. Speaking of the Most Improved Player honor, it looks like Antetokounmpo may be leading the pack at this point according to ESPN.

Jabari has improved just as we hoped he would: counting stats have gone up, the three-pointer has arrived, and defensive awareness seems to be on its way. If not for the otherworldly play of Giannis, we would likely be discussing Jabari’s play with more excitement.

Such are the perils of playing with a legitimate superstar, but this is decidedly a good problem to have. The hope now is that Jabari maintains what we’ve seen out of him so far this season and continues to work towards the other aspects of his game that could use touch and polish.

As Milwaukee fans and the Chicago Bulls saw, when the young Bucks are running at high speed, there’s not much you can do but get out of the way.

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