Broadly speaking, things haven’t worked out for the 2014 Lottery class, which Chad Ford touted at the time—in part because it was Chad Ford’s job to peddle hype, but also because he seemed genuinely jazzed about the incoming talent—as sporting five to eight future All-Stars. Joel Embiid is delivering on his Hakeem-ish potential after spending two years on the bench with injury, but beyond that, Andrew Wiggins is four not-particularly-good seasons into a career that looks like it might soon unfold somewhere other than Minnesota. Aaron Gordon is an enigma on a hapless team. Dante Exum hasn’t been healthy. Marcus Smart is aggressively okay. The Lakers passed on resigning Julius Randle. Nik Stauskas, Elfrid Payton, Noah Vonleh, Zach LaVine, and Doug McDermott have all belonged to two or three franchises by now. T.J. Warren and Dario Saric, at least, have been solid. If you had your pick, you wouldn’t take any of these non-Embiid guys over Nikola Jokic, who went 41st overall.
And you certainly wouldn’t be thrilled about getting into the Jabari Parker business, after two ACL tears and a restricted free agency that ended with the Milwaukee Bucks essentially shrugging and letting him catch a southbound Amtrak to Chicago, where the Bulls are sheepishly overpaying him on what amounts to a rental contract: two years, $40 million, with a team option for the second season. It’s a gamble, which speaks to the desperate situation both parties are in at the moment.
Unlike, say, Julius Randle, who has had the chance, over three full seasons, to show what he can do, Jabari still remains theoretical, if less tantalizingly so than when he was garnering Carmelo Anthony comparisons coming out of Duke. We have a partially defined idea of what he is, but the dude also simply hasn’t played all that much, accumulating a mere 190 total games in four years. Though much was made of how he didn’t fit next to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee’s frontcourt, they didn’t have ample time to develop an on-court connection, given Jabari’s constant cycle of picking up catastrophic injuries just as he was working himself into the fabric of the team. It’s true: he’s a lousy defender and doesn’t move the ball well. But those aren’t impossible flaws to meliorate or scheme around. The Bucks gave up on trying to solve that problem, perhaps for fear that Jabari couldn’t stay in the lineup long enough for Mike Budenholzer to figure it out.
This fresh start, on a low-stakes Bulls team that’s young and mediocre and trying to find their way, will probably be good for Jabari. He doesn’t have to share the floor with a big star. He’ll get touches in an offense that needs him to score, and he’ll be allowed to shoot his team out of a game here or there because, hey, the Bulls are going to lose some anyway. He’s also in his hometown, which some players love and others find extremely stressful. Given that returning was his choice, we can assume he’s happy to be back in Chicago.
Unfortunately, Jabari would seem to fit imperfectly into the squad he’s joining. Lauri Markkanen played almost exclusively at power forward last season, and the Bulls presumably drafted Wendell Carter to be their starting center. That displaces Jabari to the three, and with the cheese clothish Zach LaVine playing the other wing position, Jabari’s likely to have to check someone who’s going to destroy him on defense. If your position is the one you guard, Jabari doesn’t have one, but you’d rather stick him on Serge Ibaka than DeMar DeRozan, or Jerami Grant than Paul George. He’s a four, ideally. In Chicago, he won’t be playing there at tip-off.
But this is a title contender’s concern, and the Bulls certainly aren’t that. The Good Stats/Bad Team Guy designation is something like an insult, but a full season of filling that role would be considered a success for Jabari. If he were to play seventy games and average twenty per night on decent shooting, those wouldn’t be empty numbers because they would remind the rest of the league of his estimable talent. One thing Jabari didn’t get enough credit for in Milwaukee was that, during the stints he was healthy, he developed new offensive tools. He became an adept ballhandler for his size. He extended his jumper out of the three-point line. His mid-range game massively improved. He’s not a lazy player, though he can be a deeply frustrating one. Some of that was his inability to play with Giannis and Khris Middleton. That’s done now. Perhaps he’ll find greater synergy with Markkanen and LaVine.
Hardly anything up to this point in his NBA career has been Jabari Parker’s fault. He was a ballyhooed second overall pick because he was awesome in college, and he hasn’t panned out because his left knee hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. Nobody expects him to be Carmelo Anthony anymore—he’s already lost too much time, and half a step—but it would be nice, if it at 23 years old, he could reclaim some agency and become a reliable pro. He’s doubtless looking for redemption, and he’s picked a fine place to redeem himself. Now if only his body will cooperate, he might finally be able to show us something.