Hours before Jabari Parker had his worst-scoring game of the regular season against the Los Angeles Clippers in late March, the former no. 2 overall pick sat in the visiting team locker room at Staples Center, pondering his place on the Milwaukee Bucks. He fielded the typical hackneyed question about how incredible it is to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo and responded with a polite but uneffusive answer. He was asked how his return from another knee surgery had set him back from becoming a key piece of a playoff-bound team.
“It’s not just about being behind [Giannis] now, it’s being behind all the guys they have been rolling with, just having to come on behind them and fit that role,” Parker said. “But I just try to play my game. I can’t control my fit because that’s up to the coach.”
Parker played 19 minutes that night and scored only two points on 12 shots. He made one field goal and missed four 3s. Three games later, he would play nearly 40 minutes and score 35 points against the Denver Nuggets. “There’s been ups and downs,” interim coach Joe Prunty said that game.
Two games into their playoff series against the Celtics, little has gone right for either Parker or Milwaukee. The Bucks are down 2–0 in the first-round series, and Parker has played a total of 25 minutes. He isn’t happy about it, and on Thursday, before a crucial Game 3, he aired his grievances.
“I deserve to be out there,” Parker told reporters, before saying that the only way to get more playing time was to get on Prunty’s “good side.” When asked if he was on that good side, Parker replied, “I don’t think so.”
That was news to Prunty:
Asked about Jabari Parker, Joe Prunty said he’s on his good side. Doesn’t know why Parker would say/think he’s not. Mentioned that defense and rebounding are ways Parker can help off the bench, but said those things aren’t limited to Parker.— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) April 19, 2018
For a natural-born scorer, the idea that the only way Parker can help the team is through “defense and rebounding” must sound like a loss of faith in the very skill that got him here. But as a longtime assistant coach, Prunty has an eye for the little things, and it swings both ways. Before that Clippers game in March, Prunty went out of his way to praise Parker for a touch pass in a previous game that had set up a Khris Middleton 3. A touch pass. “It’s one of those small, simple plays that no one will talk about,” he said. After the Clippers game, he said that though Parker had missed all but one shot, he’d “earned the right to be out there” because of his defense.
But lately, that right has been incrementally revoked. Parker thus far just hasn’t been good enough to justify being on the court during the series. He’s made only one field goal in two playoff games, and even though his regular-season counting numbers weren’t disastrous, the team had a minus-3.5 net rating when Parker was on the floor and a positive net rating when he was off it. Judgment of his performance is not improved by the eye test, either. Parker struggles to move laterally. His shot is often flat, and he can’t get to the rim with the same ease he could before his most recent ACL injury. Though he is shooting 38 percent from 3 in the regular season, he’s taken only one 3 in the postseason. He’s clearly not yet comfortable spacing the floor. That often leads to his attempting to make cuts that aren’t there, which in turn crowds the paint, keeping Giannis from getting to the rim himself.
Parker has been sapped of the explosiveness that made him such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Duke, but teammate Marshall Plumlee still remembers the old Jabari. The two became friends while Parker was with the Blue Devils, and when Plumlee signed a two-way contract with the Bucks in January, they reconnected. Parker gifted him a couple of pairs of Jordans, and they got together on flights to stream Duke tournament games on Plumlee’s phone. Their connection had given Plumlee some perspective on Parker’s mind-set after a series of catastrophic injuries.
“He’s always been a really hungry player going back to Duke — really, really competitive,” Plumlee told me in March. “So I think there are certain frustrations that have come with the process of getting back. He’s never satisfied. He always wants to do more, but there’s a certain patience and timeline coming back from injuries.”
Patience looks to be running out during these playoffs from all parties involved. Parker will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and the Bucks will have to decide whether to keep him or let the former lottery pick walk. Fair or not, he’s an entirely different player now than the one the Bucks drafted four years ago. The team reportedly offered him a three-year, $54 million extension before the season, which he promptly turned down. Parker’s fellow top-three picks from 2014, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, have both gotten max contracts worth three times that amount.
“I just have to see what’s going to happen with my future, and that’s uncertain,” Parker told The Washington Post earlier this month. “But I know for them, they’ll be fine regardless. They’ve been doing well.”
Parker’s discontent has been mounting for weeks. “I am human,” Parker said Thursday. “I have a right to be frustrated. I’ve waited two years for this.”
Unfortunately, it all sounds like a person who knows he’s not long for this team.