Jabari Parker may still be just a teenager, but for years he has been viewed as a basketball sure thing. The Bucks' forward has been regarded as a gifted scorer with impeccable character whose All-Star future seemed more or less preordained. Those years of certainty -- dating to his time as a high school standout in Chicago and continuing during one year at Duke -- only make it that much more devastating that the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft is expected to miss the rest of his rookie season after sustaining a torn left ACL in Monday's victory over the Suns.
There's cruel, and then there's watching as the Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce comparisons give way to Greg Oden and Derrick Rose nightmares thanks to one fluky plant in transition. That unfinished Euro step has placed a franchise player's career on pause and potentially halted the momentum of a Bucks team that hadn't generated any in years.
Parker, who turns 20 in March, finishes his season with averages of 12.3 points (on 49 percent shooting), 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists. Though he will be an afterthought by the time Rookie of the Year voting rolls around, it should be noted that he was leading his class in minutes, points, rebounds and win shares at the time of his injury.
Billed as the most polished, NBA-ready prospect in the 2014 crop, Parker hit the ground running on offense. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Parker looked confident as a mid-range shooter and showed a willingness to create his own shot off the dribble. He also consistently generated points in the open court, whether by leading or completing the fast break.
This aggressive drive off a high pick-and-roll illustrates Parker's assertiveness. For starters, Parker trusts his ball handling on the perimeter and possesses the burst to turn the corner. He also has the precise footwork to execute an under-control spin move in traffic and the balance and instincts to pull up rather than commit an offensive foul. Finally, he displays a soft touch in finishing over the 6-11 Channing Frye. That total package just can't be taught.
Below, find more cause for salivation. Parker calmly surveys the Cavaliers' defense, exploits a screen going left, hesitates to freeze Kevin Love using his off hand and bursts down the baseline for a surprising under-the-rim lefty dunk. Cleveland center Anderson Varejao's hard movement toward the ball side suggests he had no idea Parker was capable of such high-flying activity with his left hand. Ditto for a stationary LeBron James, who has a front-row seat for the highlight play.
These sequences aren't a case of a top draft pick freelancing for a bottom-feeder with no repercussions or accountability. Milwaukee has been the NBA's biggest surprise, opening 13-12 after a league-worst 15-67 record last season. It'd be wrong to solely credit Parker for the turnaround, given the arrival of new ownership and first-year coach Jason Kidd, who has overseen progress from several players. But Parker has been the professional, happy-to-be-here face of Milwaukee's clean-up. He represented a brighter future for the Bucks, who have advanced out of the first round once in 25 years.
Where does the team go from here? For Milwaukee, the answer is straightforward in the micro and perplexing in the macro.
Parker was being brought along slowly, meaning Kidd needs to fill only 29.5 minutes per game rather than the 36 to 38 that A-list youngsters often play. Having overachieved with a team facing no postseason expectations, Kidd will be free to mix and match combinations in Parker's absence. Veteran stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova is capable of stepping in as a full-time starter once he returns from a broken nose, and Khris Middleton (who is logging 23.1 minutes per game compared with 30 last season) can fill in some gaps.
The same logic applies for picking up Parker's lost offense. Kidd has pursued a balanced approach -- point guard Brandon Knight is the only Buck among the league's top 65 players in field goal attempts -- and there are plenty of candidates to assume larger scoring burdens. Blossoming second-year forward GiannisAntetokounmpo is sure to see his opportunities increase, scoring guard O.J. Mayo is taking a career-low 9.5 shots and Ilyasova is averaging a four-year low in attempts with his move to the bench. Even defense-first center Larry Sanders could feature more heavily as Kidd works through his post-Parker options.
Remember, too, that despite Parker's signs of promise, he was still a 19-year-old rookie experiencing predictable growing pains. His minus-5.2 net rating placed him among Milwaukee's worst performers, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 14.9 was almost exactly league average. The Bucks have been winning largely because of their aggressive, 10th-ranked defense; that identity should remain intact without Parker, whose minus-2.13 defensive real plus minus is No. 403 out of 430 players. Because Parker's on-court defensive rating of 104 is significantly worse than his off-court defensive rating of 99, it's even possible that Milwaukee's defensive numbers will get better after his injury. That improvement, however, will depend on whether the rest of the rotation can get and/or stay healthy.
The Bucks entered Wednesday's game at Portland in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, immediately ahead of four teams (Miami, Brooklyn, Orlando and Boston) with plenty of issues. Assuming Kidd can successfully navigate the immediate emotional blow of the injury and Ilyasova and power forward John Henson (sprained left foot) return in fairly short order, the loss of Parker shouldn't derail Milwaukee's season.
Finding a way to survive in the short term isn't the goal, though. The entire purpose of the Bucks' season was development, an opportunity to give Parker, Antetokounmpo, Knight and others as many chemistry-building minutes as they could handle in a low-stress environment. That purpose, in Parker's case, is now delayed for what is typically a recovery timetable of 9-12 months. The best-case scenario has Parker ready for training camp next year. A slower rehabilitation could easily cut into his 2015-16 season, and a return to the court isn't the same thing as a return to full productivity. Milwaukee will surely proceed with the utmost caution, considering the stakes.
Bucks forward Jared Dudley seems to speak for everyone when he tweeted, "[Parker is a] great kid! Will come back stronger and better." Still, Parker can't get back these 50-plus games and 1,500-plus minutes of learning and experience, and no athlete can truly prepare for his post-surgery career until he's living it. Milwaukee, meanwhile, is stuck waiting for its most important player to return so that it can get on with building its present and future, like the Bulls had to do while Rose recovered from his knee injuries.
This uncertainty is precisely why it's so difficult to say where the Bucks go from here with the big picture in mind. Questions abound with any team this young. Will the 23-year-old Knight, who has emerged in his fourth season, be re-signed next summer? Will Antetokounmpo, 20, fulfill his massive potential? Will the 26-year-old Sanders succeed in shaking off a rough 2013-14 season and establish himself as a steady force? Parker was supposed to be the answer that helped make such questions less burning. Sadly, until he's back playing at 100 percent -- once again reminding the world of Anthony and Pierce -- Parker stands as Milwaukee's biggest question of all.