There are things that you just never want to write about.
I was supposed to have something else entirely different ready to go today (don’t worry you’ll still get it soon) but then everything changed on Wednesday night.
I was home from a tough day at work and enjoying watching the Milwaukee Bucks face off against the Miami Heat – and in all honesty hoping for a Bucks win so they could begin their climb back into the playoff picture – when it happened.
One of the worst things that can happen while watching a game of basketball. Something that just breaks your heart as a fan.
Jabari Parker was driving to the basket as he has done so many times. So many times he drove that lane just to show us something spectacular. Not this time.
Parker’s knee buckled and he collapsed in a heap.
It was his left knee. The same knee he had torn as his ACL in as a rookie in 2014.
Watching at home, I felt sick to my stomach.
The same way I did when Parker’s promising rookie season was cut short after just 25 games following a collision with PJ Tucker of the Phoenix Suns. I was watching that night too. A thrilling game marred by a bright young rookie being cut down.
Parker looked like he was going to challenge Andrew Wiggins for rookie of the year as he was averaging 12 points a game on 49% shooting while adding 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists. He was also one of the more exciting young players in the league to watch.
He displayed an explosiveness few players had. At 6’9”, 250 lbs, certainly few players his size have ever been as explosive.
Jabari can grab a rebound in the defensive end and then take off down the court, accelerating like an oversized Russell Westbrook with a speed to match and then hammer down a spectacular dunk. It’s an ability to accelerate combined with an imposing physique that is rare in the NBA.
Thankfully it was an ability that Parker’s first ACL tear never robbed him of.
Although it did slow his progress.
When Parker returned in November 2015, almost an entire year after his injury, he was still considered by Jason Kidd and the Bucks organization to be a rookie. Not only that but in the wake of his injury he was being monitored more closely and had his minutes watched more than he had in his rookie season.
He’d also lost his spot as the franchise cornerstone to another promising young player: teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This situation was not the norm for Jabari Parker.
He was from his earliest days a blue chip basketball prospect. The son of former NBA player, Sonny Parker, Jabari was a force of nature in high school. He won four straight championships while starring at Simeon Career Academy. National attention came almost immediately for Parker.
During freshman season, Parker averaged 19.3 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists – the best in varsity team history for a rookie. The team went to a 25-9 record and won the IHSA class 4A championship. For his heroics, Jabari had scholarship offers on the table from Illinois, Kansas, DePaul, Pittsburgh, Northwestern, BYU, Washington, Florida and Oregon State. Additionally, college basketball powerhouses Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina were already showing significant interest. Parker would rap up his first high school campaign by being named ESPN’s national freshman player of the year.
In year two, Parker lead his team to 30-2 mark which got it top five recognition in the country. He was gaining recognition as one of the elite talents in the US high school system alongside Anthony Davis, Ryan Boatwright and Frank Kaminsky and was named ESPN’s national sophomore of the year.
By junior year, he had the opportunity show off his skills to none other than LeBron James at the King’s skills academy. There was a lot of hype around this moment because of the national attention Parker was starting to attract and the comparisons to LeBron that many in the media were making. One that would eventually land a 17 year old Jabari Parker on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He would also be one of only a select few juniors invited to the Nike Global Challenge where he took home MVP honours. That was all before the high school season got underway. Once things kicked off, Jabari Parker starting stacking up accolades at an alarming pace.
He put up 40 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks in 21 minutes in a game against rival Perspectives High school. Scholarship offers were once again pouring in and suddenly some very familiar college heavyweights were being spotted at Parker’s games. Krzyzewski, Izzo, Weber, Matta and many more were taking in Jabari’s junior year and had to love what they saw. For the season he averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 3.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game on 55% shooting from the field, 39% from three point range and 72% from the free throw line. He was named ESPN national junior player of the year and was given the same distinction by Max Preps. He was also named a first team all-American along with other stand outs (and future NBA players) Marcus Smart, Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel.
Going into his senior year, Parker was the consensus number one high school player in the United States. Unfortunately the beginning of his final high school campaign would be marred by a foot injury which caused him to miss some games at the 2012 FIBA under-17 World Championship in Lithuania. He would recover though and continue to pile up awards and accolades. He won the Morgan Wooten award for national player of the year. He was named the state of Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. Max Preps named him national player of the year on a strong campaign that saw him average 18.4 points and 10.3 rebounds while leading Simeon to a 30-3 mark.
It was also during the season that Parker had decided to commit to the Duke Blue Devils, which was both a coup for Duke and a departure from their usual recruiting tactics. The school had historically shied away from players who were destined to be one-and-done guys using the school and a stepping stone to the NBA. Duke usually favoured longer commitments, but saw Jabari Parker as a talent too good to pass up.
He did not disappoint.
While at Duke, Parker set a record for freshman scoring with 19.1 points per game while becoming the first freshman to lead the team in both points and rebounds. His debut with Duke was a smash with a 22 point, 6 rebound, 2 assist and 1 block performance against Davidson which earned him his first of a record-tying 10 ACC rookie of the week honours that season (Kenny Anderson and Tyler Hansbrough share the mark with Parker). He had 18 games of 20 points or more – one shy of Kenny Anderson’s ACC record and had pro scouts salivating with his on court heroics.
He won the ACC Freshman of the year and National Freshman of the year and was a unanimous choice for the NCAA first team All-American squad.
The only question going into the NBA draft was whether he was going first or second. The Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately opted to select Andrew Wiggins, but Parker was still named by his rookie peers as most likely to rookie of the year and most likely to have the best NBA career.
Of course, one half of that dream was dashed just 25 games into his rookie campaign only to see him return to the Bucks in an unfamiliar role given how much individual success he had enjoyed at such a young age. He was now in the shadow of another emergent talent.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is in many ways everything Jabari Parker isn’t. Where Parker is thick and powerful, Giannis is long and lanky – a seeming mess of limbs with a wingspan (7’1”) longer than his height (6’11”). Parker looks like somebody conjured up the perfect small ball 4 while Giannis has no real defined position as his game exists on another level entirely. Both thrive when leading the offense and generally take turns doing so while the other was on the bench. The key was for them to figure out how to make it work when they were on the floor together.
Last season was as much about finding a way to share the court with Antetokounmpo as it was for Parker to get back on track after a devastating knee injury. Parker eventually did get his game back and he finished with a very solid sophomore stat line of 14.1 points, 1,7 assists and 5.2 boards per game on 49.3% shooting. The next step was to work out a successful partnership with his seemingly otherworldly Greek teammate.
They achieved all that and more at the dawn of the current NBA season.
To say that Jabari Parker took it to another level this season would be an understatement. His numbers exploded as much as his drives down the lane did. Averaging 20.1 points, 6.1 boards on 2.1 dimes on 49% shooting including a massive 11% jump in three point accuracy from last season (26% to 37% from downtown). Parker was living up to his promise as one of the best young players in the game and looked as though he might live up to the prediction of his fellow rookie class in terms of career achievements.
His partner-in-crime had also taken his game to new heights as Antetokounmpo filled the stat sheet in virtually every category averaging 23.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2 blocks and 1.7 steals per game.
The two young stars were creating the best one-two punch the Bucks have seen in years. I can’t remember the Bucks have two players performing at such a high level since Michael Redd and Ray Allen were taking them into the playoffs. Even that duo couldn’t generate the excitement and pure basketball nirvana that Giannis and Jabari were giving us every game.
The Bucks had become must see TV and were definitely my top League Pass team this season.
It was coming together on the court as well. Despite an awful 2-8 slide, the Bucks remain in striking distance of a playoff spot and were in or around the playoff picture all season due primarily to the play of their transcendent young stars.
They took it to everyone and put the league on notice. Including a man that Jabari Parker spent his virtually his entire high school career being compared to: LeBron James.
On a cold November night, LeBron and the Cavaliers went into Milwaukee and got their asses kicked. Giannis tied a then-career high with 34 points and added 12 boards, 5 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks while Jabari chipped in 18 of his own and played the Cavs hard on both sides of the floor.
The younger, more athletic Bucks were simply too much for the Cavs and the sight of LeBron James being outplayed so badly by a younger superstar shocked many around the sporting world.
Including the King, himself, who was very un-LeBron like when he openly questioned if the Bucks two young stars just played harder against him. Apparently, he was behind his League Pass because the Parker and Antetokounmpo were taking it to everyone. But, of course, maybe did save some special stuff just for the defending champs. What team doesn’t after all?
It was really the first indication of the changing of the guard in the NBA. LeBron, at 32, isn’t going to dominate the league forever. There will be a new team coming to take it to the East and there are a lot of great young talents to take the throne as the best player in the conference. Giannis, Jabari, Joel Embiid of the Sixers, and Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks are all around 22 years old. Andre Drummond of the Pistons is 23. The future is here. We’re looking at the new kings of the East. Especially as their teams continue to build around them.
The Bucks looked like the team of the future not only because their two best players were 21 and 22 years old, but also because a lot of the talent they were surrounding Parker and Antetokounmpo with were also young and dynamic. Malcolm Brodgon was a second round steal that is now paying huge dividends for the Bucks on both sides of the floor. Thon Maker, like Giannis, is a basketball unicorn with no ceiling in sight. We literally have no idea what he is capable of and the more glimpses we see of it, the more we realize he can do. Even veteran cornerstones like Kris Middleton and Matthew Dellavedova are still only in their late 20s and just starting to hit their primes.
This is a young, promising squad with two future superstars that have nowhere near peaked. If anyone is going to claim the East going forward, why not the Bucks?
Sadly we may have gotten our answer on Wednesday night. As Jabari Parker crumpled to the floor. His ACL torn. His season over and his career uncertain.
It’s a sickening feeling as a fan. It’s awful to watch a young player go down like that. Zach LaVine had just had his season end in virtually the same fashion with the same injury in the same knee. Like Parker, he was having a transcendent season and just like Jabari was on one of the most loaded teams in the league in terms of young talent.
All you can do as a fan is hope that these guys can come back and pick up their careers where they left off. But then you look at Derrick Rose or Shaun Livingston and wonder if they will ever be the same again.
That’s the worst part of injuries. Young lives forever altered. Career trajectories forever changed. Promise left unfulfilled. Just ask Grant Hill or Penny Hardaway how that feels.
Jabari Parker deserves a better fate.
He’s a good young man. A devoutly religious Mormon who inherited his father’s political and social activism.
Parker has never shied away from his political views and has been one of the NBA’s loudest voices in opposing the current US President and a strong voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. He also has been an outspoken and important role model for young black men in Chicago. A city who has lost too many to gun violence.
For those kids, seeing Jabari Parker achieving greatness on the basketball court while still making time for them means everything. When your friends and loved ones too often meet their fates with a bullet, having someone who came from your city, from your neighbourhood and walked the same streets as you come and deliver a message of hope means more than anything ever could. It’s the hope another famous Chicagoan promised but couldn’t deliver on. It’s real. It’s tangible and you can reach out and touch him and know he not only made it out alive but made it to a global stage.
We need Jabari Parker now more than ever. Not just on the court, but also for the kind of young man that he is off of it.
His life and his activism will go on with or without basketball, but as fans, all of ours will be better with Jabari Parker on an NBA court continuing to grow and develop into the all-star we all knew he would be one day.
Keep those prayers up for Jabari Parker.