Big Buck Hunter: Wounded Deer

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Well, this sucks.

Just 3 years after the Bucks snagged a top 2 pick and selected Jabari Parker as the new face of their franchise, the best laid plans are being put to the test. Parker, one of the NBA’s most promising young forwards, has torn the ACL in his left knee for the second time in three years – casting major doubt on his ability to recover and continue on the same career trajectory as was once expected.

There are just so many questions! bucks logo

Was he fully recovered from the first ACL?
Parker is a remarkable athlete. At 6’8″ and 250lbs, there aren’t many forwards in the NBA with Parker’s athleticism, power and agility. While his recovery from his first ACL injury took some time, he began to flourish post the 2016 All Star Break. He was now achieving the peak of his powers – showing no signs of hesitation on lateral movement and dunking everything in sight, fully recovered.

bucks logoHow does this effect the Bucks in season 16/17?
The short term basketball effects for the Bucks have surprisingly not appeared to have hindered them too much. They are loading up Giannis with as much as he can handle, and are now starting journeyman forward Michael Beasley (although he’s about to miss a minimum of 3 games) in Parker’s old spot at the 4. While Beasley is no Parker, he is also a former #2 overall pick that can get hot and carry the team every now and then. He features some elements of Parker’s athletic game, bulk scoring ability and aversion to defence – just in a less consistent (and good) package. Hopefully for the Bucks (and more importantly, Beas) he is back sooner rather than later.

When Beas has been off the mark, the Bucks turn to Mirza Teletovic and he should see an even bigger minutes increase while Beasley is out. The Bucks invested heavily in Mirza Teletovic last off season and will be hoping that this investment now starts to pay dividends. Teletovic has had a disappointing first season in Milwaukee, but the Bucks need him badly now to find some form to provide the spacing The Greek Freak needs alongside him. If Khris Middleton can begin to receive 75% of his normal workload after just returning from a serious hamstring injury himself (the early returns are promising), the Bucks have the pieces that can keep them afloat in a wide open Eastern Conference middle class over the next 12 months. While the sample size is very small, the Bucks have won their past 3 games and sit just 2 games out of the 8th playoff spot.

bucks logoWhat about for season 17/18 & beyond?
The long term ramifications for Parker and the Bucks are interesting to ponder. Parker was due for an extension at the end of this season that would have made him an exceedingly wealthy man. Now, it is unlikely that Milwaukee will give a significant offer to him given his shaky injury history – and they will need him to prove himself next season before committing to Parker longer term. This means Jabari is likely headed to Restricted Free Agency, where the Bucks can let the rest of the NBA determine his market worth. Milwaukee will need to determine whether they can rely on Parker, or if they’re better off focusing their attention on pieces that perhaps fit better alongside Giannis, the new face of the franchise. This could well become one of those Steph Curry deals which look like a bargain years from now…or it could be a disaster that kills your cap.

In the interim, I would expect the Bucks to continue to operate as they are currently. Stop gap solutions at the 4 in Mirza (still under contract) and perhaps Beasley, a lot of Giannis at the 4 and even some big lineups with Thon Maker. When Parker returns (likely around the All-Star break next season), I would expect they’ll get a good look at him as a 6th man for the remainder of the year, playing around 20-24 minutes a night. That’s not great news for Parker, who would be looking to re-establish his market worth. Depending on how those games go – another NBA franchise might be more willing to take the risk on Jabari than the incumbent Bucks.

bucks logoWhat’s the history like on recovering from 2 ACLs?
The hard part when assessing an injury as catastrophic as two ACL’s is there just aren’t many case studies in professional sports of player’s coming back from two of them. If we look at the NBA, only Danny Manning and fellow Buck Michael Redd have torn two ACL’s and continued to play in the league. Manning is probably the better comparison for Parker.

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At 6’10 and 230lbs, Manning was the 1st overall pick by the LA Clippers of the 1988 NBA Draft. As a Senior, Manning led the Kansas Jayhawks to the NCAA title by dropping 31 points, 18 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 blocks on the poor Oklahoma Sooners…and just like Jabari, he also tore his ACL 20-something games through his promising rookie year.

Fortunately, Manning recovered well from his first ACL tear as a 22 year old, making the All-Star team in the both the 92/93 and 93/94 seasons….where he was then promptly traded to Atlanta for Dominque Wilkins in a monster deadline deal. As a Free Agent after the season, Manning signed in Phoenix in order to win a championship, backing up Charles Barkley on a stacked Suns team. A huge call for an All-Star in his prime. Unfortunately, part way through the 1994-1995 season, Manning tore his ACL again and this changed the trajectory of his career drastically – never appearing in more than 27.7 minutes per game for the rest of his career.

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The hard comparison with Manning though is that his 2nd ACL occurred as a 28yr old. Parker is just 21 years old and has already suffered the same fate. One would assume a 21yr old will recover better than a 28yr old…but how much?

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Probably the best example from an age perspective is in the NFL, and Robert Griffin III. RG3 was the 2nd overall pick by the Washington Redskins – with some question marks on his knees around draft time due to a torn ACL sustained in his Sophomore season at Baylor when he was 20 years old. Jabari was 19 when he tore his ACL for the first time.

Showing no ill effects of this earlier injury, RG3 had one of the most impressive rookie seasons for a QB, ever. He was not a traditional pocket passer Quarterback, as his game was predicated on speed and athleticism as seen in his rushing yards and touch downs in that ridiculous rookie season. Due to some unfortunate injury mismanagement, he tore his ACL again towards the end of his rookie year at age 22. Jabari was 21.

This second ACL tear has derailed a once promising career, and while RG3 is still in the NFL (now with the Cleveland Browns with just 5 starts this season) – his effectiveness has dwindled each year and he has never again reached the heights of his rookie year. To be fair, it was not solely the two ACL tears – he also suffered a dislocated ankle in 2014 and a broken shoulder in 2016 – but the point is that the injuries he suffered limited his athletic ability, and given his reliance on his athleticism made him an elite QB, he never added other strings to his bow to make him a more complete player. Parker still has the chance to rectify this mistake and extend his career.

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So, what’s next for Jabari in his career?
Jabari only needs to look at fellow Chicagoan Derrick Rose to see what knee injuries can do to a basketball players career trajectory. Hell, he could also look at fellow Duke prospect Harry Giles and wonder if 2 ACL’s before his 19th birthday have ruined his career before it ever really started. The silver lining for Jabari is that he has shown drastic improvement this season on something that could save his career – his jump shot. Jabari’s J will become increasingly important as he recovers from another serious knee injury that could limit his athleticism, explosion and finishing ability at the hoop going forward, one of his biggest strengths.

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Jabari Parker 16/17 Heatmap from nbasavant.com

Over his first two years in the league, Parker was a woeful 13-51 (25.5%) from three point range over 91 career games (0.14 three point makes per game). In his breakout third season, Parker was already at 65-178 (36.5%) from three point range in 51 games (1.3 makes per game). This is a huge turnaround, and the continued development of his three point shot will be a key element of how effective Parker can be in an NBA game that is putting more and more of a premium on the three point shot. It will also reduce the amount of beating his knees will take with repeated drives to the hoop, which should give him the best chance of extending career.

The ripple effects could be huge for this injury, and it’s shattering to see such a promising young career put on hold just when it was starting to blossom. We’ll be watching with interest to see how Parker combats this latest setback, and whether he can recover and be the All-Star he was looking to become. Can the Bucks still see Parker as a key component of their future? Or will they choose to move on, much like they eventually had to do with former franchise cornerstone Michael Redd? Hey, at least the Bucks have experience with this kind of thing.

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