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It has been nearly 365 days since Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker played in an NBA basketball game. Undoubtedly, a lot has changed during his injury hiatus: Head coach Jason Kidd was recently fired, the Bucks acquired a bulldog of a point guard in Eric Bledsoe, lost a playoff series to Toronto and maybe, most importantly, teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. Come Friday against the visiting New York Knicks, however, Parker — who tore his left ACL last February — will be in the lineup.
“It’s kind of weird because I’m not in that mind frame and I have to change my mentality,” Parker told Yahoo Sports. “For the past year, I was just complacent. Just waking up, lifting, rehabbing and that’s not fun. It gets redundant because it’s so long. … I have to start conditioning my mind.”
Of course, Parker is no stranger to knee problems. Since becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft, he has suffered two serious knee injuries and two surgeries. In four years, the former Duke standout has played 152 games, which translates to just over half of Milwaukee’s games. When he has been on the floor though, Parker’s dynamic scoring ability and offensive wizardry have been on full display. Before tearing his ACL last season, he averaged 20.1 points on 49 percent shooting, while also upping his 3-point percentage from 25.7 to 36.5 percent. The so-called “Baby Melo” – Parker measures 6-foot-8, 250 pounds – he can handle the ball, create for others, post-up, rebound and finish at the rim.
“He has the ability and the talent to be the new Carmelo Anthony,” newly minted Bucks assistant coach Vin Baker told Yahoo Sports. “His vertical looks the same. His quickness and power seem the same. He’s got that great mid-range game and he has the lateral quickness to create that space.
“Jabari is a professional scorer. He’s intense about scoring. He reminds me a lot of Glenn Robinson [Baker’s teammate with the Bucks during the 1990s who earned two All-Star appearances] a lot. He’s got that explosive jumping ability. He can push the ball, pull up from three, drive by you and finish in the paint. He’s a unique talent. He has it all.”
As much as Parker’s return is about endurance, physicality and feel, it is arguably his mental approach that requires the biggest adjustment. In other words, not simply thinking the game and anticipating its myriad different components — a strength of his to be sure — but re-acclimating himself to the relentless nature of NBA competition as well.
“Now I have to get on the mind frame of competing,” Parker said. “As far as my role goes, I’m kind of distant from that. But I do have to know what is expected of me.”
To help make that a more seamless process, Parker has spent the past year not only watching the Bucks play, but also paying close attention to what the elite teams and players are doing across the league. For example, how does LeBron James guard the post? What enables the Warriors to consistently achieve ideal offensive spacing? Do the Rockets switch pick-and-rolls with James Harden?
“I understand and know what it takes to win,” he said, “because I try to mimic and watch the teams that are so successful.”
Adding to Parker’s challenge is that he’s never played for Joe Prunty, who took over as the Bucks’ interim head coach following Kidd’s dismissal last week. Compounding matters even more is the firing of assistant coach Frank Johnson, Parker’s close friend, confidant and individual skills developmental guru.
“I enjoy being around Frank all the time,” he said. “When he got released, I kind of didn’t know what to do. I had a hurdle and he got me over the hurdle. It’s kind of a sticky situation. [Joe and I] haven’t had that dialogue. I just have to find my way with the team — trying to assimilate and not step on anyone’s toes.”
Parker is extremely self-aware. He has an alpha-dog mentality, but he’s respectful about his approach. It’s to that point that Baker believes will serve him well.
“I think he has a great awareness of where we are as a team and the fact that we’re in a playoff race,” Baker said. “When I talk to him, he talks about fitting in, which is probably the right mindset because we have so many different offensive weapons. The kid is such a gifted scorer. But that rhythm is not the same because he doesn’t have that continuity. I think he’s dialed into the process of fitting in and he’s coming back where he has to work on him, but he also has to work on him from the team concept. … He’s just such a good kid and I can see that he’s fully committed to it.”
Oh, and don’t forget about the elephant in the room. This is a contract year for Parker — his first opportunity to explore the free-agent market and gauge his value. It is undoubtedly on everyone’s mind, including his. On one hand, he’s only 22 years old — the same age as Los Angeles Lakers standout rookie Kyle Kuzma — but on the other, he has yet to show the Bucks and the rest of the NBA that he is a franchise cornerstone worth a max contract.
How well Parker plays as the sixth-seeded Bucks (27-22) make their playoff push will not only determine his future in Milwaukee, but whether another team elects to offer him a maximum deal. Does he feel anxious?
“No anxiety,” Parker said.
What about pressure?
“No pressure either,” he adds. “It kind of helps because I have done some mental rehab as well. I do what other people don’t do on a normal basis. I’m actually in a better position than just normal players because I’m doing the things they miss out. My risks are a lot lower.”
Injury risk is always prevalent, but the truly great ones in this league are available every night. While we all wax poetic about LeBron’s brilliance, a key part of that brilliance is actually being on the court. In 15 seasons, James has averaged roughly 77 games (out of 82), not to mention his remarkable NBA Finals run extending seven straight years. That’s what Parker strives for — not just greatness, but being someone who can be counted on.
“I don’t have any aspirations [such as being an All-Star] for myself,” Parker said. “It’s too late for that. All I have to do is play good basketball. … Now I have to get in the mind frame of competing. I understand and know what it takes to win.”
Parker’s challenge moving forward is two-fold. Simply playing basketball at an elite level is hard enough. Additionally, he is tasked with understanding his role and how he fits into a roster and an offense firmly built not only around him, but around Antetokounmpo — the most tantalizing talent since LeBron — as well. What does Parker’s offensive game look like with “Greek Freak” initiating the Bucks’ half-court attack? How does he strike the balance of being a perimeter, mid-post and low-post player? What are his playmaking responsibilities in both the open floor and half-court?
“I was never like a super-aggressive, selfish kind of guy,” Parker said. “If you watch my game, I don’t hold the ball more than two or three seconds. … I can open up another realm [to the offense].”
What about playing on the perimeter or the low block?
“Either/or is fine with me,” he said. “I’m versatile. I can fit in a role. We got [ball]-heavy guys that stay on the ball a lot. I don’t need to this year. I just need to find a role and stick with it.”
Parker must also measure this knowledge with Prunty, who following Kidd’s dismissal has guided the Bucks to four straight wins. He is anything but concerned.
“Joe is a professional and he understands he can’t just change the system, so there aren’t as many challenges,” Parker said. “I’m not trying to overload myself or overload my learning. My race is my own unique race. I have to just be content with what I can control and get better.
“I’m not trying to be famous. I just stick to what I know best and that’s playing the game. I don’t want any attention. … All I got is my family, my friends and basketball. Basketball is the icing on the cake. Basketball is my sanctuary.”
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.