Jabari Parker Means More to Chicago Than Any Headline Ever Could

Jeremy Woo
Sports Illustrated

With the tumultuous arc recent franchise decisions have etched into history in mind, it’s par for the course in 2018 to treat whatever the Chicago Bulls happen to do at a given moment with a level of cynicism. So naturally, there are several lenses with which to view Jabari Parker’s arrival. The recent signing of the 23-year-old South Shore-bred scorer with the twice-repaired left knee has already sparked some taglines, many of which are rather obvious. Another Bulls reclamation project, expensive local marketing effort, death knell for Chicago’s defensive hopes, low-risk, high-reward proposition. Feel-good story.

There’s some truth to all of those labels, but Parker’s decision to join his hometown team might be best framed as a necessary marriage. From the Bulls’ perspective, moving on from Jerian Grant and pulling David Nwaba’s qualifying offer was a small price to pay for a massive talent upgrade on a team-friendly contract, a neat storyline to launch next season, and most importantly, a gifted player entering what should be his prime years. Parker’s evolution is ongoing, and he wouldn’t be the first high-end talent to be helped by a change of scenery. Relocating 90-some miles south on I-94 means a chance to start over.

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Needless to say, tearing the ACL in his left knee twice hampered Parker’s development as a player. The injuries also weren’t the entire story: according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, his relationship with former Bucks head coach Jason Kidd had grown increasingly fraught over the years (Kidd was fired in January). Giannis Antetokounmpo evolved into the team’s franchise player (rightfully), and Parker’s skill set fit less neatly with how Milwaukee aimed to build around him. Though they could ill-afford to keep him financially, credit the Bucks for removing the qualifying offer and opting to let him walk, to a division rival no less.

More athletic and skilled as a scorer than he’s often credited for, signing Parker to a deal that offers the Bulls an out after next season possesses little risk, and he wasn’t likely to command $20 million up front anywhere else in the current free-agent market. He’s a career 49% shooter from the field and shot a career-best 38.3% from outside last season. Parker isn’t the franchise’s savior, but Chicago can at least feel some type of solace in teaming him with Lauri Markkanen, a re-signed Zach LaVine and promising rookie Wendell Carter for the next season or two and seeing what comes of it.

It’s fair to think being home can help rejuvenate Parker on a mental level. The media climate in Chicago has been harsh on past stars, his fellow Simeon graduate Derrick Rose among them, but he’ll instantly be appreciated for his candor and off-court presence. Parker remains the most decorated high school player in Illinois history after winning four state titles, but more importantly has always possessed an eloquence and self-awareness that sets him apart from most people his age, much less athletes. “I’m here to help,” he wrote of Chicago in a Players’ Tribune piece in 2016. “I’m not going to be folklore.” Since before he set foot in the NBA, Parker has been active and vocal in helping to improve underprivileged communities, building on the work of his father Sonny’s local youth foundation. Anything you read about his off-court impact in the city will be founded in sincerity.

Parker means more playing for the Bulls than he ever could anywhere else. Fair or not, he’s already the most recognizable face on the team. The on-court fit isn’t as neat as the optics of the move: given their personnel, the Bulls will likely have defensive issues if they indeed use Parker primarily at small forward. Neither LaVine nor Markkanen makes their money on that side of the ball, and the tandem of Carter and Robin Lopez at center won’t cover every mistake their teammates make. It’ll be up to the coaching staff to ensure the ball doesn’t stick, but if nothing else, Chicago will trot out skilled, athletic lineups next season with time clearly on its side. The rebooted roster should be enough to afford a front office with nine lives an added helping of patience.

Best-case scenario, Parker stays healthy, breaks out and looks like a bargain. Of course, if that happens, it could put the Bulls in a difficult contractual spot two summers from now. But a legitimate focus on culture and continuity is more than the organization has had to sell the public on in years, dating back to when Derrick Rose was still healthy. It’s not often a former No. 2 overall pick changing teams on his second contract creates room for optimism. And for a young player whose gifts still promise more, this could finally be that.

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