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Jabari Parker's Fairytale Chicago Return Headed Quickly Toward Unhappy Ending

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJanuary 26, 2019

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 04:  Jabari Parker #2 of the Chicago Bulls walks across the court in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at the United Center on January 04, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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Jabari Parker watched from the bench again on Wednesday night. It wasn't a new vantage point for Parker, who was pulled from the Bulls' playing rotation in mid-December. But this time, it wasn't due to a perceived lack of production. Rather, Parker experienced knee pain during warm-ups and was held out with what the Chicago Bulls described as a right patellar tendon strain.

At this point, his relationship with the franchise can best be described as beyond strained; his homecoming to the city where he won four straight state titles at Simeon Career Academy has been a massive disappointment to all involved.

"His resume from his prep days, and even at Duke, should've gotten him into a different status and tier," a league executive who knows Parker told Bleacher Report. "But we're five years and two major surgeries away from that. Things just haven't clicked."

Rebuilding is hard, and the Bulls are in the violent thrashes and throes of it. The turbulence has swept up Parker, who, at only 23, has endured a career's worth of hardship already. Only six years removed from being touted on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "the best high school basketball player since LeBron James," Parker has been in and out of the rotation in Chicago and appears headed for a near-certain divorce from his second team in as many years.

The No. 2 pick in 2014 out of Duke, Parker became an unrestricted free agent this past summer when the Bucks rescinded their qualifying offer, a move that Parker and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, appreciated. After tearing his left ACL in February 2017 for the second time in three seasons, the Bucks weren't willing to commit to him long-term but were gracious in allowing him to continue his career in his hometown of Chicago. Parker signed a two-year, $40 million deal with the Bulls, who, it's important to note, hold a team option for the second year.

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Despite the high price tag, it was a sensible, short-term risk for the Bullsa flier, if you will. If things didn't work out, they wouldn't owe Parker another dime, and he could move on to his third franchise in three seasons. But nobody in Chicago, least of all Parker, expected things to unravel this quickly.

The Bulls fired coach Fred Hoiberg in December after a 5-19 start, elevating assistant coach Jim Boylen to the first seat on the bench. Soon, Parker would be taking up nightly residence a few seats down.

Josh James @joshjames

Oh. And btw... Jabari Parker is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Check it out!! @RickMcCord @jabariparker22 http://t.co/uF4iRzEo

Citing Parker's practice habits and lack of defensive commitment, Boylen pulled Parker from the rotation after only five games on the job. Parker was inactive for nine straight games and 12 out of 13 as the Bulls kept sinking further into the abyss. After Friday night's 106-101 loss to the Clippers, the Bulls are 11-38 and heading back to the draft lottery.

"He's a 23-year-old guy who's younger than a lot of rookies in the league," Bartelstein said. "He's an immense, immense talent. When you watch him play the past couple of weeks, that talent level oozes out. You see it. It hasn't gone the way we had hoped in Chicago, but the goal right now is to figure out how to make things a whole lot better. The talent level is undeniable. We're just taking every day and trying to figure out what the best solution is."

Indeed, Parker returned to the rotation on Jan. 12 and played well in five straight games off the bench before being held out of Wednesday night's game with the knee issue. Multiple league sources confirmed Bartelstein is working with the Bulls to find a trade solution, so Parker's increased role could be a thinly veiled effort to showcase him to potential suitors.

"If they've decided to play him more, that's why," a rival executive said. (Boylen, however, said Wednesday in a radio interview with 670 The Score in Chicago that Parker is playing more because he's practicing better.)

Either way, two rival executives told B/R that the Bulls' search for a trade partner could prove futile. Given how things have gone for Parker in Chicago, it's clear to all potentially interested teams that the Bulls aren't picking up Parker's $20 million option for next season. If you could sit back and get a former No. 2 overall pick who's not yet 25 for a whole lot cheaper as a free agent a few months from now, why would you give up an asset and take on his contract for the rest of the season?

"They'll try to trade him for anything they can get," one of the rival execs said. "It's going to have to be an expiring contract, but how many teams have expiring contracts that can stack up to [$20 million]? Not many. I think they'll just buy him out."

According to a person familiar with the dynamic between Parker's camp and the Bulls, a buyout is not currently on the table. But that could change if the Bulls haven't found a trade partner by the Feb. 7 deadline.

Parker's, shall we say, suspect defensive effort has been well documented. That doesn't make for a tidy fit with a coach who's trying to retrofit a culture with a backbone of, um, defense. Parker's ideas on this topic came across loud and clear in a radio interview he did with 670 The Score after the Bulls signed him, when he infamously stated, "They don't pay players to play defense."

Though healthy most of the season, Jabari Parker's inconsistent defensive effort has not won him many minutes under new Bulls coach Jim Boylen.
Though healthy most of the season, Jabari Parker's inconsistent defensive effort has not won him many minutes under new Bulls coach Jim Boylen.Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

Even those within the Bulls organization who have grown frustrated with Parker's on-court habits have nothing negative to say about Parker the man. And those sympathetic to his plight concede that communication is an area where he could improve.

"He's a good dude; he's just different," the league executive who knows Parker said. "He sort of keeps to himself, but he's not a bad guy."

In addition to his talent and resume, Parker also is known for being charitable and active in the community, and for his Mormon faith. For that reason, the Utah Jazz have been mentioned in front office circles as "an interesting fit for him," one of the rival executives said.

Until Bartelstein and the Bulls find the solution they're looking for, Parker remains hovering at an unforeseen altitude in the basketball stratosphere. How much longer will the sad decline of one of the NBA's most hyped prospects endure?

"Two ACLs for a guy like that; think about that, man," another person in the league who knows Parker said. "On the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old as 'the next LeBron James.' He's Mr. Everything, goes to Duke, No. 2 pick, and he was playing really well, and then he gets hurt. And then he comes back from that injury, and if you remember, heading into the All-Star break that year, he was on the short list of reserves.

"And then, bam, second ACL."

Going from being practically born into superstardom to having a minimal role on his hometown team has been understandably tough for Parker to swallow.

"His mentality is, he was never asked to be a role guy, and now all of a sudden, he's asked to be a role guy," the person said. "That's never been his mentality; never been who he was. I just think he's so funked up from a mental standpoint.

"Whatever his next move is, he's got to step back from being Jabari Parker. Maybe that means coming off the bench. Maybe that means he doesn't average 20 a game right away. Maybe it's eight, and then 12, then 16. It can all come back to him, but it may take some time.

"This next situation will be a real telltale for him."

    

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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