The Milwaukee Bucks haven't quite taken the leap that many had hoped they would this season. On October 11, the Bucks had the fourth-best odds among Eastern Conference teams to win the NBA title (ninth-best overall), per ESPN, and that was before the team added explosive point guard Eric Bledsoe in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. At 33-27, the Bucks are no slouch with the sixth-best record in the East, but with talent like Bledsoe, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton, they clearly haven't yet begun to reach their lofty potential. Jabari Parker, however, looks like he could be the player to turn the Bucks into a feared team come the postseason.
Parker's career has gotten off to a tumultuous start. He tore his ACL in the same knee twice over his first three years in the league. But when on the court, Parker's NBA tenure has been anything but tumultuous. Though he's played in less than two season's worth of games (161), Parker has managed impressive career averages of 15.6 points (49.1 percent shooting), 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game. He was averaging a whopping 20.1 points across 51 games last season, looking like a budding star before blowing out his knee.
Since making his return from injury on February 2, the 22-year-old has understandably been eased back into action, averaging just 19.7 minutes in the nine games he's played and sitting out a game when the team played back-to-back nights. But it seems like the Bucks may finally be ready to unleash 2014's second overall draft pick. Parker has played 24-plus minutes in each of Milwaukee's past two games, averaging 18.5 points on 54.2-percent shooting with 5.5 rebounds. Perhaps most encouraging is that Parker was left off the Bucks injury report Wednesday, per Stephen Watson of WISN, suggesting that he'll play both games of a back-to-back set after posting 19 points Tuesday night.
Parker is beginning to look like the player he was before his most recent devastating injury, and if he continues to trend in this direction, the Bucks could climb the standings and become a feared playoff contender.
Antetokounmpo, one of the most talented players in the league, does just about everything on the court, but his supporting cast has been perimeter-heavy this season with his top teammates being Bledsoe and Middleton. Parker, though the same height as Middleton at 6-foot-8, brings a much tougher interior presence to the squad. On his career, Middleton takes just 15.4 percent of his shots from within three feet of the rim and 28.1 percent from within 10 feet; Parker's career numbers for those metrics are 43.5 percent and 59.3 percent, respectively. And don't forget that Parker can also step out and stretch the defense—he's hitting 42.9 percent of his threes this year. With Parker's exciting talent rounding out the squad, the Bucks should become a more balanced team that can beat its opponents in multiple ways.
When Parker will join the starting lineup remains to be seen, but it seems reasonable to expect the youngster to be plugged in with the starters at some point before the playoffs. The Bucks have recently been rolling with Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and John Henson as their starting five. With the 6-foot-11 Henson being the only traditional big man in that lineup, Snell appears to be the obvious candidate for the bench. Theoretically a three-and-D weapon, Snell has the second-worst defensive rating on the team at 113 and a modest career three-point percentage of 37.9. Middleton has experience at shooting guard, while Antetokounmpo has experience just about everywhere, so sliding those two players up to make room for Parker at his natural power-forward position seems like it would be a good move.
Of course, interim head coach Joe Prunty will be the one to make that call. Prunty could also opt to increase Parker's minutes while keeping him on the bench in a sixth-man role, allowing the team to space the minutes of their top players. The Milwaukee bench scores fewer points than any other team in the NBA, per Hoops Stats, and Parker could make for a dangerous go-to weapon with the second unit.
The Eastern Conference was largely expected to be a two-team race between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, but with Cleveland's inconsistent play over the past two months and Boston's loss of Gordon Hayward, it's conceivable that a surprise team could make a push for the conference title. If Parker can regain the form that he showed prior to his injury last season, the Bucks will have the talent to be that surprise team.