BROOKLYN — This time last year, the Milwaukee Bucks were right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff field. Their rebuild was way ahead of schedule, only a year after finishing with the NBA's worst record. And they were doing it without Jabari Parker, the second pick of the previous summer's NBA draft.
Projections are always abnormally high for young teams fast-tracked for success. Many predicted the young team as a sleeper playoff squad. ESPN's forecast panel predicted 43 wins and a top-eight finish this season.
But it was not to be.
They have fallen drastically short. The Bucks are 10 games under .500 right now, too far back (5.5 games with 14 to go) to sneak into the playoff field.
Yet there are tremendous silver linings for patient Bucks fans. Giannis Antetokounmpo has already evolved into a triple-double machine, and the version of Parker we've seen these last few weeks gives the Bucks reason to believe they have two future perennial All-Stars (and maybe three).
Talent and Time
To hear Parker tell it, a good deal of his improved play is merely the result of opportunity. But Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has alternative theories.
"It's about the confidence coming from a serious knee injury and believing that he belongs," Kidd said before the Bucks' game against the Brooklyn Nets last Sunday. "Going to the All-Star Game in Toronto, coming back from that showed that he belonged and that he's one of the top young athletes or young stars in this game."
Parker finally looks like the player the Bucks thought they were getting when they drafted him out of Duke.
Parker's combination of size, quickness and power has been put to better use of late, especially with the ball in his hands.
He can put the ball on the floor and power through smaller defenders. If he gets switched onto a bigger player, Parker will shake past him, dip his shoulder to create separation and then unfurl a fadeaway jumper.
Combining that power and speed was the last thing Parker achieved after his return from a torn ACL last season.
"It did take a lot of time," he said. "It's one thing to be real strong, but it's another thing to use that with speed."
Parker has also made strides beyond pure scoring. He's working more and more from the top of the floor, which has given him opportunities to seek out higher-level passes.
"With the ball in my hands, allowing me to make plays, that's all it was," Parker said of his improvement.
Parker's assists are up since the break, but so are his turnovers, by about one per game.
Parker tallied only five games of four-plus assists during the first 73 contests of his career. He now has hit that benchmark in four of his last 14, inching closer these last few weeks to assisting on 10 percent of his teammates' baskets, a mark hit by only eight first- or second-year forwards this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Scoring is still his best skill, but the ability to make a drop-off pass on the drive, slide the ball through the paint to a rolling big or kick to a shooter after coming around a screen helps keep defenses honest.
Parker's work off the ball has also been more impressive of late. He's not only been able to free himself for those pick-and-roll and isolation opportunities, but he's also making well-timed cuts to the rim. Not only that, but his thick frame allows him to seal off good position if the pass doesn't arrive exactly on time.
Parker has also begun to work more in concert with Milwaukee's two other young, foundational players: Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
They've gone from playing just over 18 minutes per game together to just under 29 since the All-Star break, according to NBA.com, and they're smoking teams when they're on the floor. Milwaukee has outscored its opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions across its 14 second-half games when that group has been out there. When any one of them is out of the game, that net rating drops to minus-8.2 points per 100.
The offensive interplay works because of their diverse and multiple skill sets. As mentioned above, Antetokounmpo has become a triple-double machine since becoming a de facto point guard. Middleton is far and away Milwaukee's best shooter and has gotten better at working off the dribble as well.
Parker has that great face-up game off the bounce and knows when to flash open for one of his teammates. But he's also gotten better at his catch-and-shoot looks.
He's even become more comfortable working outside the three-point line. He's made four triples (out of nine attempts) since the break after going 0-for-9 before All-Star and just 4-for-16 last season.
His latest three was a very quick, in-rhythm catch-and-shoot from above the break, the first non-corner deep ball he's made this year. The corner tries are easier to make, of course, but players like Parker who are so often directly involved in the action don't wind up in the corner as often as specialists do. It's important that he be able to hit from the wings and the top of the key.
Defense was the biggest question mark for Parker coming out of college, and in many ways it still is. Parker himself agrees that there's room for lots of improvement.
"[In] college, you could pretty much stay in (the paint) as long as you want and work your way out easily. Now you've got to work yourself toward your man, back in and then out. It was a step that I had to learn."
Parker's development on that end, both on and off the ball, will be key. The Bucks don't really have a natural rim protector, so it's on the guys in front of the rim to keep the opposition away. That isn't easily done, but with the right positioning, knowledge of scouting reports and controlled scrambling, it can happen.
Because of the Bucks' lineup configurations, Parker also works as a small-ball 4 a lot of the time. When the opposing team puts the 5 (typically Greg Monroe or Miles Plumlee) in the pick-and-roll, it's then on Parker to be the last line of defense at the rim. That too is something he had to get used to.
"In different situations, they can be harder than each other. On the wing, you have to chase. And different player bring different aspects to the game. Also, with the screens, you've got to be able to defend shooters rather than just rollers. So it's different, but it's the same [difficulty] level."
Playing more with Antetokounmpo and Middleton has made the defensive responsibilities simpler.
"It made it a lot easier," Parker said, "especially when you see those games we played against the [Golden State)] Warriors where we could switch, on and off the ball. It made it hard for them to get shots up from three. I just think it makes us a lot more difficult to play against."
Switching like-sized players multiple times during the same possessions eases the burden on young guys, but it also leverages the fact that the Bucks are younger, springier and more athletic than most of their opponents. Teams have figured out their helter-skelter scrambling for most of this season, but if they can refine it in the future, it's a system that makes sense for the personnel.
This Milwaukee team was second in the NBA in defense as recently as last year. They've not yet been able to cobble together an above-average offense despite all their talent, but they're approaching that level over these last few weeks with the improved play of their core.
If Parker stays on this track, they'll deploy three high-level offensive players under the age of 25 for at least the next three years. If they jell on the other end as well, they'll be that much closer to their bright future.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics via NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.