Jabari Parker is the X-Factor for Milwaukee

The 2016 deer hunting season is about to open in Wisconsin, but the Deer are hunting a return to the playoffs.

Milwaukee is one of the most intriguing teams in the entire NBA. Heading into the 2016-17 season, they boast one of the most freakishly athletic players in the entire world, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The team also features breakout guard Khris Middleton and forward Jabari Parker.

Parker, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft, has inherited the same burden of expectation as top-tier prep and collegiate talents that came before him. He’s a fantastically gifted player. In his lone season at Duke, he averaged 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and just over one assist, steal and block per game. He even shot well from the floor.

A lot of college players can get by because they are simply stronger or faster than anyone else they come up against. This tends to result in a lot of high-percentage looks near the rim. Other players stand out because they are shooters with remarkable range and accuracy on the court. Players like Buddy Hield earned a reputation for excellent shooting from outside.

Parker flashed some of that same range to go with his athleticism and size as a freshman with the Blue Devils. In his lone season with Duke, Jabari averaged three 3-point attempts per game and connected on 35.8 percent of those attempts. Those numbers aren’t stellar, but also not bad for a college player and better than the numbers that he and a majority of his teammates at the pro level of the game in Milwaukee averaged in 2015-16.

The story starts earlier for Parker. As a rookie in 2014-15, Parker started all 25 games that he played before tearing an ACL. The Bucks went on to good things, Jabari healed up, and what ensued was one of the greatest Gatorade commercials ever produced.

One assumption that people made, myself included, was that the Bucks were good enough for the playoffs when they didn’t have Parker, so bringing him back healthy could only make them better. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And it isn’t all on Parker. Questions of the coaching acumen of Jason Kidd are starting to rise to the surface more frequently. They signed Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons, a move that I thought was smart, only to find themselves out of the playoffs behind the Pistons, who received the dubious honor of being the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round warm up.

No, it isn’t all down to Parker. He’s just one young player, a very talented young man with some incredible upside. However, some of the moves that the Bucks made seemed to indicate that they did think Parker was going to slide in next to Antetokounmpo and instantly produce at an above-replacement level.

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One thing that you notice right away about Parker’s shot chart – he doesn’t appear to be comfortable yet at this level and with his new knee. I’m sure there are some people out there who think that an NBA player should bounce right back from such a serious injury. For those hot take champions, please consult the career trajectory of Derrick Rose. It can take a long time for athletes to recovery physically and psychologically. And that appears to be a possibility if you look at Parker’s month-by-month numbers for last season:

Looks a lot like a player that was improving as the season went on. And what about some comparison amongst peers:

Sure, this isn’t like-for-like, but it does give context to the direction that Parker is headed.

Now, before we go too far in the wrong direction or down any particularly ridiculous NBA-in-September rabbit holes, let me draw you back to that shot chart. Notice how few shots Parker is taking from range? Without going back and watching all 76 games that Parker played last season, I couldn’t tell you the exact scenario for every shot he took.

Also, the NBA makes all access to past games disappear from League Pass in July. They should fix that, immediately. Where was I? Oh, yes, Parker’s shooting numbers. He’s developing quite the inside, close-range game. However, he’s not doing anything from outside. As a 35.8 percent 3-point shooter in college, I have confidence that his range extends out to the NBA 3-point line and he needs to be utilized there more frequently. I’m sure there is also a confidence factor to this whole process. After all, he is still just one full season into his career.

Another problem with the Parker assumption is that it feels like he has been around longer than is actually the case. You can visit his basketball reference page and see that he has played two seasons in the NBA. That simple math might mean more to some than the fact that as teenager, fresh out of a single season of college ball, Parker was barely healthy long enough to come to grips with being a pro player before his knee injury.

You want to know about a rookie, give him at least 50 games in his first season before you begin to judge him. For the skeptics, how did Kristaps Porzingis fare as the season wore on and took its toll on the New York sensation? Even older players like Frank Kaminsky still struggled to deal with the rigors of NBA-level competition and, more importantly, incessant travel. NBA travel is fairly brutal and takes some adjusting to. It can even be dangerous. Chris Bosh has a career hanging in limbo because of blood clots, partly attributed to the experience of frequent flight during the season.

Beyond Parker simply growing into his game and finding the combination of good looks and shots attempted, there will need to be good personnel around him. Enter the Dellavedova. Matthew Dellavedova was signed by the Bucks over the summer to play point guard. As much as it pains me to say this, that was probably a good move by Milwaukee. Delly brings an irritant factor that complements a replacement level, or slightly better, ability to manage an offense while playing hard. Really, Dellavedova plays hard. All the time. Coincidentally, I like him better than Michael Carter-Williams and think that his limited abilities fit in with the Bucks quite nicely.

I know there are a lot of MCW truthers out there. I’m assuming they are also the same flat earth truthers I hear so much about. Winning Rookie of the Year in a particularly weak year isn’t something that you can live off of when you’ve followed up that accolade with nearly nothing. I took a lot of flak from zealous Bucks fans when I didn’t consider the Carter-Williams trade a win for Milwaukee. The general response was that he was going to become the next Kidd. Laughing out loud.

Carter-Williams can still make a long and successful career for himself, but I reject the notion that he is going to become a transcendent, borderline Hall of Fame guard.

The really bad news for MCW is the stat lines for the players that are much, much more important to the Bucks.

Parker’s massive improvement as the season went on might have happened regardless of the presence of Carter-Williams, but there is almost no reason to assume that Middleton and Antetokounmpo could also continue to thrive while getting significant contributions from Parker. Unless, there was a common link. MCW might be that link. Considering Delly is a superior player in my valuation, one key piece is now in place to give Parker the opportunity to take another big step in 2016-17.

The Bucks have a fairly open window. Nate McMillian is a good coach, but the Pacers have a lot of new faces and a lot of questions to answer. The Chicago Bulls are teetering on the verge of dumpster fire or conference semi-finalist, who knows which (it’s dumpster fire, to be sure). Detroit grabbed the eight-seed last year, but needed an awful year from both Milwaukee and Chicago to jump them in the division standings. Cleveland is so far ahead of everyone else that it doesn’t matter.

The picture being painted is one of a wide open division. The Bucks need to be careful to not expect too much from the Greek Freak, but they should finally start expecting more from Parker. Last year, it wasn’t fair or right to assume that Parker could shoulder the load that Milwaukee needed him to carry. He improved significantly as the season wore on and Carter-Williams was taken out of the equation. Parker’s continued improvement will be the X-factor for the aspirations of the Bucks.