The promising return of Jabari Parker
When you ask Sonny Parker about his youngest son’s basketball career, there’s one statistic he loves to quote. Parker lingers outside the tunnel of an emptied-out Air Canada Centre, hard to miss even now at a slightly-hunched over 6'6". Sonny, himself a first-round selection by the Warriors in 1976, waits patiently on Jabari, a second-year forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, to materialize out of the locker room. “You know,” Sonny says, “before he got hurt last year, Jabari was fifth in the NBA in dunks.”
It is late Friday in Toronto, the first night of All-Star Weekend, and some 30 minutes ago, the younger Parker sewed up a win in the league’s Rising Stars showcase with a two-footed, two-handed flush directly over en vogue Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis. With that memory fresh in mind, his father’s favorite fact is altogether unsurprising.
Sonny recalls it correctly: some 14 months ago, Jabari was indeed a surprising fifth in the NBA in dunks. “Jabari’s deceptive,” he chuckles. Parker was 25 games into his rookie year, on his way to justifying his No. 2 pick out of Duke and following the path his father started on nearly 40 years ago. Then, Jabari’s left ACL gave out on a mid-December drive to the rim .
Reflecting on the injury comes more easily to all involved these days, infinitely so as Parker soars around bigs, slinks along baselines and sinks mid-range jumpers with a grin on his face. After a grueling, nearly year-long rehabilitation process, the minutes limit and training wheels have come fully off for the high-flying Parker, who has returned strong as ever—perhaps stronger.
One month later, before facing the Nets in Brooklyn, Bucks coach Jason Kidd shares a theory about that night in Toronto. Just being there among the best, he thinks, was a critical confidence boost for Parker. “Coming off the serious knee injury,” Kidd says, “and believing that he belongs.” Parker and 6’11” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, limbs lengthier than his last name, have both trended upward, emerging as the youthful faces of the team. The duo’s spectacular play has rejuvenated the Bucks for the stretch run, despite diminishing postseason hopes and just 10 healthy bodies on the roster.
Since the All-Star break, Parker, Antetokounmpo and fourth-year swingman Khris Middleton have all averaged north of 20 points per game. Antetokounmpo has garnered headlines as a fill-in point guard with his frequent triple doubles and nifty Eurostep jams, while Middleton does his damage from the wing and behind the arc.
Parker, perhaps most impressively, has weaponized his role roaming from corner to corner, ducking in and popping out for shots and attacking the rim. He’s averaged 21.2 points and 6.7 rebounds since the break while leading the Bucks’ main trio with a 51.6% field goal clip. And as his father would surely tell you, Parker is seventh in the league in, yes, slam dunks. “He’s demonstrating the things we all thought he could do,” Kidd says, “and that’s, for one, score the ball at a high rate right now.”
“It’s a rhythm thing,” Parker explains. “Confidence in my body, trying to trust myself mentally more than anything. A lot of people forget, but it’s not an excuse that I took a year off and started playing in November.”
“Most people maybe thought he was going to not make it back to the level he’s at right now,” Kidd adds. He commends Parker’s work ethic. And, somewhat cosmically, this game at the Barclays Center marks exactly the 82nd start of his career.
That work ethic has never been in question, dating back to Parker’s days growing up on Chicago’s South Side. There were the grueling workouts at neighborhood parks with his older brother Darryl, who played ball at Oregon and overseas. There were fall league games in which his mother, Lola, forced him to finish his homework behind the scorer’s table, before he could play. Parker, who is Mormon, went to church every Sunday (with occasional 5 a.m. classes during the week), worked out early mornings and late nights, and would sometimes spend sleepovers at friends’ houses running on the treadmill. Those close to him believe that he was oddly fortunate to suffer a prior serious injury before his torn ACL.
The summer before his senior year at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, Parker, then the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, fractured his right foot at the U–17 World Championships in Lithuania. He played through the pain, helping lead the United States to the gold medal. Upon returning to Chicago in August, he learned the foot was broken.
The Parkers opted for Jabari to avoid surgery and let the foot heal on its own, given his young age. Several months of inactivity followed, and by the time the season rolled around, the rust was evident. Parker, once a pudgy but talented middle schooler, possessed a healthy appetite from a young age, and his weight ballooned by 20 pounds.
A team photo taken by the Chicago Sun-Times, featuring Parker, his teammates and their three state trophies. remains the last true evidence.“We show up a week before the season to take the photo, and [Jabari’s] massive,” says Michael O’Brien, who’s covered prep basketball for the Sun-Times for 15 years. “There was no way around it. It was so striking once I saw the picture, even more so than in person.”
While Parker had been inactive, a hyper-athletic Canadian wing named Andrew Wiggins reclassified as a senior, knocking his counterpart off the top spot in the class rankings. Around his friends, Parker wasn’t stressing it. But Simeon head coach Robert Smith believes it had an internal impact. “It kind of hurt him a little bit,” Smith, who still speaks with Parker frequently, recalls. “He knew that he wasn’t able to put out his full effort, and felt like people were just forgetting about him.”
Highly-motivated, with a fourth state title dangling in front of him, Parker rushed back from the injury. The morning of Simeon’s first game, he lobbied desperately to suit up, despite not having practiced once. His parents and Smith consented. But predictably, his season started poorly. “He was still trying to do the stuff that he could [usually] do, Smith says, “and his body wouldn’t let him.” Nationally, recruiting types questioned Parker’s athleticism and how it profiled at the college level and beyond. And after an ESPN-televised loss to DeSoto (Texas) and future Duke roommate Matt Jones, Parker told Smith on the flight home that he planned to get in shape before taking the court again.
“Different parts of my life have helped me get a little more comfortable,” Parker told SI.com, reflecting and citing the value of a professional staff. “In high school, you don't have the people around you, you don't have the tools to really get better.” He’d been conditioning before class and after practice (“He was literally, school and basketball,” Simeon teammate Miles Harrison remembers). What nobody knew at the time was how far Parker was taking matters into his own hands.
In midst of a bitterly cold Chicago winter, in a South Shore neighborhood that’s no place for any teenager in the dark—much less a future millionaire—Parker ran. When the whole house had gone to sleep, he would sneak out, still overweight, and go from block to block, running as long as he could until he couldn’t.
He did this for a couple of weeks, until one of his coaches happened to drive past 6’8” Jabari sprinting outside one night. He filmed it on his phone and reported back to Sonny, who was unsurprised. And despite the safety risks, father couldn’t help but understand son. “He had the passion,” Parker says. “He was determined. He wanted to get better.”
Jabari missed three games and returned in time for Simeon’s holiday tournament (they won.) He continued conditioning over the course of the season, gradually expanding his on-court role and eventually leading a team with eight other future Division I players back downstate, where the Wolverines completed their four-peat. The Sun-Times photo ended up appearing in the tournament program—the paunchy kid in the back row long gone.
In Brooklyn, days before his 21st birthday (March 15), Parker takes a few pregame questions at his locker following an impromptu film session with Antetokounmpo and a team staffer. Visibly distracted by the NCAA selection show on a nearby television, he says this is the strongest he’s ever felt. “It’s a different kind of strong,” he tells SI.com, “more stable, more supportive.” He agrees that the labors of the broken foot begat the success of his second, more difficult recovery.
“It was more patience, a new mindset, frame of mind that I had to develop,” he told SI.com. “That [physically] you’re not gonna be here now, it's not gonna be there as soon as you play, but it's something you just have to get better at.” Parker believes it will help him for the rest of his career.
After the ACL surgery, Parker began to grow his hair out, a tradition he started while injured in high school. The length of his fro serves as a manner of gauging time and progress, and as he likes to tell his friends, a reminder that “the grind ain’t pretty.” He returned to the Bucks’ facility in February ready to work, rehabbing individually with ACL specialist Suki Hobson, brought in specifically for Parker and now a permanent member of Milwaukee’s training staff. “This was the first time he’d really worked on his body consistently,” Sonny notes, praising the team’s handling of his son’s recovery. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. This time, he took his time.”
Meanwhile, the Bucks overachieved their way to a first-round series against Parker’s hometown Bulls, pushing the favorites to six games before bowing out. Jabari spent the entire series behind the bench in street clothes. “He felt like he was letting his team down because he was hurt,” Smith says. “I think he really thinks they could have beat the Bulls if he could have played.” If that was the case, Parker, ever-modest, won’t admit it. “It was insightful, really something that blessed me,” he says. “I was able to support my teammates in the playoffs, something I wanted my entire rookie year, and something they wanted from me. It was something I really appreciated.”
He spent Summer League with the Bucks in Vegas, training with Hobson and injured teammates Tyler Ennis and Johnny O’Bryant, which included a hike through Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon. In August, Hobson took him on a trip to the Andes Mountains in Peru, using the high altitude to improve his stamina. He and Ennis, another first-rounder rehabbing a shoulder injury, lifted, conditioned and played full-court one-on-one on a daily basis. “Just pushing each other,” Ennis says. “To see him playing so well and so healthy, with his knee and mentally and everything, it’s good to see the progression.”
The duo was cleared to play in early November, four games into the season, and the gains from the year away were quickly apparent. The minutes limit came off in January. “His athleticism, to me, seeing him from college and high school, is on another level,” Ennis, a longtime AAU teammate of Wiggins, adds. “On a nightly basis, you see some stuff that he does, you’ve never seen it before.”
Athletically, Parker has come back stronger, and mentally, the NBA game has begun to slow down for him. His defense remains a work in progress, but he was drafted to score, and score he does. Perhaps equally comforting for the Bucks, who have designs on a playoff return next season, is that in many ways, Parker remains the same kid, running sprints by himself in freezing-cold temperatures.
After the Rising Stars game and a quick appearance at a Jordan Brand’s All-Star party, Parker was on the first flight out of Toronto by himself at 5 a.m. The destination? Chicago. His first stop? The north suburban home of longtime friend and former travel-ball teammate Cory Dolins, a walk-on guard at DePaul. Parker then drove south to Kennedy-King College, the tiny city school where high-school pal Harrison had an afternoon game. From there, they drove back north to Evanston, where several former Simeon teammates, now at Illinois, played at Northwestern. The next day was Valentine’s Day, and Parker treated one of his uncles, Harrison and the Dolins family to dinner at the Signature Room on the top floor of the Hancock Building. Dolins’s parents had taken Jabari there once in middle school. He liked the view.
It could be so easy for Parker to grow frustrated. In his role with the Bucks, he rarely initiates action with the ball and lacks the freedom he was granted growing up and in his lone year at Duke. He hardly ever shoots threes. Even with his recent progress, Parker ranks just fifth on the team in usage rate, averaging less than two seconds and less than a dribble per touch. The offense runs through Antetokounmpo now. He’s thrived nonetheless. “His growth since the All-Star Game has shown us he doesn’t mind riding alongside his teammates, Giannis and Khris,” Kidd says. “He’s a guy that can sometimes go unnoticed, but he can put the ball in the basket with the best of them.”
If you ask Parker, he's more likely to critique himself than give himself even the gentlest pat the back. After a win in Brooklyn, when asked about his own play, he is thoughtful, yet reticent. But his thoughts on another Antetokounmpo triple double? “It’s special,” he says with a grin. “I always want to see my teammates succeed. I want to milk that cow as much as possible.” A final question prompts Parker to envision himself and Giannis together on a dunk-filled highlight tape, to paint the future.
After all he’s been through, Jabari knows better. His response is measured and simple:
“Don’t jinx us.”