Story by K.L. Chouinard
Follow him on Twitter: @KLChouinard
The Class of 2013 of Simeon Career Academy put on a magnificent show when the Hawks played the Miami Heat in Atlanta on Halloween.
Rookie Kendrick Nunn started at guard and scored 28 points to lead the Heat. Five-year NBA veteran Jabari Parker came off the bench and grabbed eight rebounds while scoring a team-best 23 points. At Simeon, the duo combined to achieve the historic feat of winning four Illinois State Championships in four seasons from 2010 to 2013.
“That’s my brother,” Parker said of Nunn. “We’ve known each other since we were 11 or 12 years old.”
Parker was quick to add a notable footnote to their high school success. He and Nunn also won gold in the two summers that they played internationally with Team USA at the FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship and FIBA World Under-17 Championship.
Fifteen months after finishing that high school career, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Parker with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2014. Along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had just finished a promising rookie season, the Bucks had twin beacons of hope for a frustrated fanbase that had not seen their team win a playoff series in 13 years.
In the five years that followed that draft, Antetokounmpo made the meteoric rise from mid-first-round draft pick to NBA MVP. Parker tore the ACL in his left knee during a promising rookie season, clawed his way back to play 76 games a season later, then tore the same ACL three-quarters of the way through his third NBA season, one in which he was averaging over 20 points per game.
“You know what?” Parker said philosophically of his former teammate. “To see him from Day 1 transform into the person who he is today is a blessing, because I can tell my kids and my program about what it takes in dedication to become the MVP of this league – and it’s a guy that I know. Those memories are shared, and I had a little bit in there too that I’m grateful for. We all won at the end of the day by seeing him accomplish his goal.”
As a member of the Hawks, Jabari carries with him a legacy of Bucks practices, which at the time were held in the Cousins Center, a few hundred yards from the shore of Lake Michigan. When his teammates take the court for practice in shorts of various lengths – some with leggings, some without – Parker sports a pair of faded sweatpants that stop a few inches above the tops of his hightops.
“I’ve been wearing sweatpants since my rookie year in Milwaukee,” Parker said. “It was cold in the gym sometimes, so to layer up was very important to stay warm throughout the course of practice.”
Those sweatpants fit Parker’s persona as the NBA’s oldest 24-year-old. To wit, Jabari counts among his passions vintage 1960s Cadillacs and 1990s hip-hop.
“He says that he has a brother that’s my age,” head coach Lloyd Pierce said. “Jabari listens to everything that I listen to, music-wise. In the mornings when the iPad is going, I always know when it’s Jabari who is controlling it. You may hear Marvin Gaye. You may hear Biggie. You may hear Outkast. It was Big Daddy Kane the other day. I know when Jabari has the iPad and you can feel his energy.”
In fact, Darryl Parker, Jabari’s oldest brother, most definitely fits in Coach Pierce’s age bracket. When Darryl was playing college basketball at the University of Oregon and Pierce was at the University of Santa Clara, they once played in a game against each other. Santa Clara won, thanks in large part to Steve Nash’s 34 points.
The story flips when Jabari takes the court. The graybeard stuff drops by the wayside when he uses his incredible skill, bounce and athleticism to finish around the rim.
Through games played Saturday, Parker had taken 85 of his 93 shot attempts in the form of threes or shots within five feet of the rim – the shots that Pierce uses as a rough measuring stick of how successful his offense has been. The ones around the rim are where Jabari has thrived most. He has made 41 of 55 shots (74.5 percent), a mark that puts him in elite company among NBA finishers. And his 25 dunks ranked him fourth in the league behind only perennial dunk-masters Clint Capela, Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.
Parker’s value to the Hawks goes beyond his ability to put the ball in the hoop from close range. Of all the front-court players on the team, Jabari has the best handle on drives and that particular skill has immense utility in situations where Trae Young faces pick-and-roll traps and other double team situations.
“I’m definitely trying to look for a lane, especially when Trae frees up the court so much like that creating doubles,” Parker said. “It’s going to be important for everyone else to be aggressive.”
Parker counts Young among the best point guards with whom he has played, alongside Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine and Eric Bledsoe. Parker only got to play with Bledsoe for one season, and with Beal and LaVine for parts of the same one season, and he didn’t get to play with any of those players during his first three NBA campaigns. Playing with Trae should only help his immense scoring gifts.
On the other side of the ball, Pierce said that Parker has learned the defense, but the next step is to vocalize it and make plays once the scheme becomes instinctive.
“His biggest thing is using his voice,” Pierce said. “He knows where he is supposed to be; he is in the right area. If you know your defense, you talk your defense. He is still not sure of, ‘Am I saying ‘switch’? Am I saying, ‘Get over’?’ He is in the right spot. He is trying to do the right thing now, where the next step is to not just do the right thing, but to make a play.”
For the season, Parker is averaging 16.4 points and five rebounds per game in 25.5 minutes, while shooting 57.0 percent from the field. For his career, Parker is one of a handful of active NBA guards and forwards to average 15 or more points per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field or better (min. 200 games played). The others are LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin and, of course, Parker’s old running mate, Antetokounmpo.
Jabari Parker makes it easy to forget that he is just 24 years old. He has done a lot in his NBA career, especially in light of the hurdles thrown his way. But six years into his NBA career, he still has time to do so much more.