Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo will both start for the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night next season, and if all goes well, the next 10 opening nights after that. Parker is 6'8" and 19 years old. Antetokounmpo—forever referred to as "the Greek Freak"—is now 6'11" and also 19.
And so, Milwaukee will build its foundation at two increasingly important and interchangeable positions: power forward and small forward. But does this pair complement each other on both ends of the floor? On paper, it appears they're a perfect fit.
Parker was selected second overall in this year’s draft, a score-first hurricane from Duke University who’s able to put the ball in the basket in myriad different ways. He’s strong, can shoot, attack the basket, get to the free-throw line and rebound.
Parker obliterated the Atlantic Coast Conference in his only season of college basketball, finishing third in field-goal percentage (47.3 percent), fourth in free-throw attempts, first in total rebounds, third in offensive rebounds, second in usage percentage, second in PER, second in points per game and fourth in win shares per 40 minutes.
It was an offensive season for the ages, but his defensive woes remain an understandable concern. In a recent interview with ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Parker tried turning his known weakness into a myth:
I think I've been doing a really good job on defense lately. Especially defending the post, and defending the ball screens. I even did that at Duke. It's one of the underrated aspects that I have that people overlook. Because if I play really good defense, I'll also have the ability to score. I was really big on that end for my team, because if I don't show up, we don't win. I think that's one of the underrated parts of my game, that I'm continuing to work on.
But, as Philly.com’s Tyler R. Tynes points out here, the tape doesn’t lie. Parker has a seven-foot wingspan, which obviously helps in the steal and block departments, but he’s slow laterally and didn’t display the best effort in college. Part of his comparisons to Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay are because his offense is unstoppable. But it's also because he lacks dominant flair on the other end.
Today’s NBA is overflowing with athletic scorers on the wing, and asking if Parker can keep up is a legitimate question. This is problematic whether he plays power forward on the block—and needs to step out to guard pick-and-rolls—or small forward, where moving on the perimeter is a necessity.
Now feels like an appropriate time to bring up the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo has the potential to be one of the league’s very best perimeter defenders. His body is a growing jungle of the lankiest limbs you’ll ever see. Once he bulks up and fills out—allowing him to better defend more physical players in the post—getting around him will be a nightmare for even the NBA’s most intimidating offensive weapons.
So begins the blend between Parker and Antetokounmpo. While the former should eventually grow into an imposing scorer from all over the court—primarily using most of his energy with the ball in his hands—the latter will take care of guarding the other team’s best player.
Parker won’t have to worry about it, and it’ll be easier for Milwaukee’s coaching staff to hide Parker on less dangerous players. The same goes on the other end, where Antetokounmpo is less polished and perhaps not built to carry a team’s scoring load.
At the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, Antetokounmpo showed he can carry his own, unleashing a barrage of tricky post moves and coast-to-coast playmaking brilliance in the open floor. He can put the ball in the basket just fine, but against elite defenders it might be a struggle, especially if he's also responsible for containing elite offensive threats.
But if the other team’s best defender is too busy focusing on Parker, Antetokounmpo may be able to feast against flimsier obstruction off the dribble. His shooting will need to improve regardless.
Last season, the draft’s 15th overall pick shot just 22 percent from 16-23 feet, 41.4 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from behind the three-point line. These numbers all need to rise, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t as defensive focus shifts to Parker.
The way they complement each other is clear, and it’ll be fun to see if Bucks head coach Jason Kidd allows them to run offensive action off one another—particularly 3-4 pick-and-rolls that could have the defense shaking at the knees.
Parker has star potential, and he’s the player everyone wants to talk about. But every star needs at least one running mate in order to find team-wide success. Several league observers have compared Antetokounmpo to versatile sidekicks like Scottie Pippen and Andrei Kirilenko. If those forecasts are accurate, Parker will get to grow beside the perfect teammate, and this duo may soon be one of the league's most impressive.