• Why Jabari Parker Might Struggle Initially

    The #2 overall pick in last June’s draft, Bucks forward Jabari Parker, seems to be the consensus choice for the rookie most likely to come in and be a solid pro right away. ESPN’s Summer Forecast panel selected Parker as the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year, a belief shared by his fellow rookies, and even by the Bovada gambling service. An excellent scorer (19.1 PPG) and rebounder (8.7 RPG) in his one season at Duke, with an NBA body and a mature-beyond-his-years demeanor, Parker has been deemed much likelier than rawer peers Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum to make a quick adjustment to the pro game, and help Milwaukee make a turnaround in his first year.

    I’m not so sure.

    At Duke, Jabari was an excellent player, a deserving first-team All-American. But he was also more enigmatic than many seem to remember. Was he a three or a four, or even a small-ball five? Was he better off taking defenders down in the post or toasting them on the perimeter? Did he have poor defensive instincts, or was he just playing out of possession out of necessity? Was he out of shape? Was he still recovering from injury? What would his game be like playing with a true point guard? For a guy considered the safest bet in his class, Parker still had an awfully large number of questions surrounding him by the end of his first and only year in the NCAA.

    From watching him in Summer League, I’m not sure that Jabari really seems to know who he is as a basketball player yet, and I believe he has a number of issues that are going to make his rookie year in the NBA a lot more of a struggle than people are expecting. That’s not to say that he’s a bust or that he won’t go on to a long and successful pro career, just that I don’t believe he’ll acclimate to the game at this level quite as quickly or smoothly as Milwaukee fans are probably hoping.

    Jabari’s Summer League stats were, on the whole, fine for a rookie. He averaged 15.6 PPG and 8.2 RPG on 41.9% FG in 28.6 minutes a game–numbers which, especially when compared to some of his other much-hyped rookie peers, were pretty solid. However, go a little deeper into those numbers, and the in-game context behind them, and you can see how they might be a little misleading for both his Vegas performance, and how he should be projected to perform once the regular season tips off.

    For one thing, those stats are padded a little by his performance in the Bucks’ final game of the summer, a consolation-bracket game against the Warriors in which Golden State rested some of their best players, pulled others after the first quarter and change, and likely didn’t suit a single player who’s going to play in the league next year. Unsurprisingly, Jabari had his best game of the week in that one, putting up a 20-15 on 8/15 shooting. Remove that game from his stats, and Jabari’s numbers sag to 14.5 PPG and 6.5 RPG on 38.3% shooting–still not terrible, but much less unassailable.

    And for a guy who scored about 15 points a game, Jabari didn’t really show much of an idea of how to reliably score on the pro level yet. His jumper was faulty all week, particularly from behind the arc, where he went just 2-for-11, continuing the struggles from the end of his Duke career. What’s more, his shot selection was often terribly questionable, as he showed the Kevin Durant-like impulse to pull up for long jumpers even when decently contested, despite having nowhere near KD’s effectiveness with the shot yet:

    He didn’t have much more luck getting to the basket in the half-court, as he struggled with the pro length of defenders like Andrew Wiggins (then of the Cavaliers) and Austin Daye of the Spurs. Here, Jabari drives against Daye, but due to Daye’s length and athleticism can’t get past him or over him, and gets called for the push off trying to clear space:

    So if Jabari lacked a reliable way to get buckets in the half-court, how did he still average 15 a game? Well, one thing Jabari seems to already excel at is getting to the line. He averaged nearly seven free-throw attempts a game in the Summer League, after finishing fourth in the ACC last year in FTAs. He’s fearless in attacking the basket and drawing contact from whoever gets in his way, basically willing himself to the line.

    The downside to this, however, is that Jabari often seems to find himself careening into heavy traffic, with no backup plan in case he doesn’t get a whistle. This results in a lot of turnovers–he averaged a whopping five a game this summer–and a lot of shots that are so hopelessly off the mark that they may as well be turnovers.

    The other primary offensive skill in Jabari’s current arsenal is the ability to be absolutely terrifying in transition. Once he gets a rebound or a quick pass off an opponent’s miss, he’s off, and with his combination of size, strength and speed, he’s just about impossible to slow down in the open court–not without fouling, anyway.

    The same principles can apply when Jabari gets a head of steam in the half-court, too. Here, he catches JaMychal Green on his heels a little, bursts by him and strides in for the and-one.

    By getting to the line and getting out in transition, Jabari can create a good deal of offense for himself. However, he’s yet to show the ability to create for others, and posted just seven assists in five games of Summer League, after averaging just over one a game at Duke. He’s not an unwilling passer, and he was able to set his teammates up for a couple good looks off of attention he drew, which they weren’t able to capitalize on.

    But he’s not a particularly pinpoint passer, and he’s prone to the occasional silly turnover or possession-killer just misjudging the speed and direction of his passes, throwing them behind his teammates or leading them too far:

    Ultimately, I think Jabari will continue to struggle with his shot against the size and speed of NBA defenses, and I’d bet his shooting percentage lands somewhere in the low 40’s for next season, while he’d be lucky to land in the low 30’s for his three-point stroke. With his ability to get to the line and Milwaukee’s lack of other offensive options, he could still average a point total in the high teens–Carmelo Anthony, the player Jabari’s most often compared to, also shot poorly his rookie year (44% from two, 32% from three), but still averaged 21 points a game, largely because he landed in the top ten of the league in FTAs. But if he continues to turn the ball over like this, while posting an assist rate like he had at Duke, it’s hard to imagine him posting a PER much above league average.

    Of course, this is all just on offense, where Jabari should improve as he adjusts to the pro pace and size. The real challenge for him will come on defense, where he often looks downright lost. Parker may drive new coach Jason Kidd insane with his tendency to tether himself to the basket, helping on assignments where he’s not needed or just kind of watching from a distance, and allowing open shots on the perimeter in the meantime. (Jabari is wearing #12 on defense.)

    On the first play of the video, he does it twice in one possession–first tilting so far away from the Spurs’ Kyle Anderson on defense that Anderson gets an open three, then standing there watching as the Spurs kick the offensive board back out to Anderson, who hits the second time.

    It’s not like Jabari does his team that much of a favor by offering his full-time protection near the basket, either. For the five games of Summer League, Jabari did not post a single block–he averaged 1.2 a game at Duke, often playing center for their undersized roster–and when he was called on to offer help at the basket, it usually looked like this:

    In addition to his Carmelo-like skill on offense, Jabari also appears to have adopted some of Melo’s less-celebrated defensive tendencies. Just about everything is a switch with Parker on the pick-and-roll, as he appears unwilling or unable to fight through screens. Sometimes his teammates can handle the adjustment, but other times it leads to the rest of Milwaukee’s defense being compromised, and ends with a mismatch or an open shot.

    Similarly, as destructive as Jabari can be to opposing defenses in transition, he can be just as destructive to his own when it’s time for him to change ends of the court in a live-ball situation. You could probably fill about ten minutes just watching times where Jabari was lazy getting back in transition this Summer League alone, but here were some of the more galling examples of him loitering for an extra second in the backcourt as the action moves rather rapidly in the other direction. (Again, in these clips, Jabari is the guy wearing #12 hanging out near the wrong baseline.)

    There are some excuses to be made for Jabari’s D on the whole–it’s just Summer League, he’s clearly not yet in the greatest shape, and he still suffers from an awkwardness of position that Kidd will have to work to clear up for this Bucks roster. But it’s pretty apparent that NBA-level defense is something he’s going to have to take the time to learn, and until he does, he’s going to be a liability on that end of the court for Milwaukee.

    The Bucks aren’t the worst situation for Jabari in that respect, as they have the frontcourt length and versatility to cover for him to an extent, but they can’t abide playing 4-on-5 as Jabari forced his team to do on occasion in Summer League. They also might not be in the best position to maximize Jabari’s offensive talents, with Kendall Marshall the only true point on the roster, and combo guard Brandon Knight likely to get the majority of minutes at the one.

    I do believe Jabari’s issues are mostly stuff that can improved, and that he has the raw skill to improve and eventually round into the player that so many expect him to be. But I seriously doubt we’ll see the best of him in his rookie season, and I doubt that he’ll be enough of a difference-maker to move the Bucks out of the cellar. If he really is the most NBA-ready of this rookie class…well, that would probably say more about the class than about Jabari himself.

    (Photo Credit: Adam Glanzman)

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