Before the Atlanta Hawks signed Jabari Parker, head coach Lloyd Pierce sat down with the former No. 2 pick in Las Vegas and outlined all the ways they could help each other. They discussed bringing Parker off the bench as a way to feature him against opposing second units, and playing him alongside John Collins in small groups that could invigorate the offense. Pierce brought up Trae Young, too, and all the ways Atlanta’s franchise point guard could underscore Parker’s athleticism as a roll man.
That theoretical partnership made sense for everyone. It was narrow enough in a low-stakes, high-upside environment for Parker to chip away at how teams perceive him, and even earn back bits of the prestige he brought into the NBA. He entered the summer having recently been benched and then traded by his hometown Chicago Bulls, in need of a place to rehabilitate his reputation and showcase the positive elements in his game. Atlanta was ideal, and a two-year, $13 million contract was soon agreed upon.
A couple months later, reality struck when Collins was suspended 25 games for taking a banned substance, essentially setting Pierce’s preseason plans for everyone—including Parker—on fire. Now, the Hawks are 6-22 with a bottom-five defense and offense, and Parker has been thrust into the starting lineup as a full-time power forward who moonlights at center in super-small lineups that get absolutely demolished.
Pierce is hopeful things will turn around in the weeks ahead, once everyone is back, healthy, and functioning with responsibilities they can handle without exposing themselves. There are reasons for him to be optimistic.
“When we get John back we’ll be able to get [Jabari] back to that role, I think, where we can use him as a second pick-and-roll guy. We can also feature him against second-unit guys, and we can reduce his role a little bit...I want him to play all 82 healthy. He has an injury history…I want him to feel comfortable and I want him to feel fresh after every game.”
In the meantime, despite Atlanta’s putrid results and without taking into account his defense—which remains a code-red concern—Parker has been on a slow crawl towards becoming the best version of whatever he can still be. He’s Atlanta’s leading rebounder and second behind only Young in scoring, usage, and PER. Long twos make up five percent of all his field-goal attempts, down from the ungodly 20 percent he jacked up last year with the Bulls. Among all players who average at least nine two-point shots per game he has the seventh highest field goal percentage, and ranks 20th in offensive real plus-minus.
The Hawks were the first organization to reach out in free agency. According to Parker, a few others knocked on his door, but none promised the same amount of regular playing time, which was a priority in his decision-making process.
“Forget the contract and whatever. I’ve made a lot of money other places,” Parker told SB Nation. “So it’s not just for the money. It’s just so I can enjoy the game. As long as I’m playing, that’s all I care about. It’s not about anything else.”
He’s only 24 years old, nearly eight years removed from a Sports Illustrated cover that anointed him as “The Best High-School Basketball Player Since LeBron James”. It’s impossible to know how it feels to have that pedigree, carry those expectations, average an efficient 20 points in your third NBA season, and then have your trajectory thrown into turmoil by two ACL tears in three years. The talent is still there for him to positively impact a team that entered the season with wind in their sails, and the Hawks are hopeful he’ll have that chance: Collins’ return coupled with a break in their schedule can re-route back towards the postseason (Atlanta is only 6.5 games behind the eight-seeded Orlando Magic).
Still, for Parker, it’s too early to label what we’re seeing as a comeback story. His career teeters in a fugue state, with an ocean between where he is and where he was expected to be. To get there, much still needs to change. Most NBA teams still see Parker’s energy, focus, and lack of defensive commitment as a non-starter. Last year he was benched and then traded by the Bulls, and has yet to display any outward accountability for why that was.
“I could be traded again, but you’ve just gotta be ready and prepared. Because any situation can uplift me. And I look at it that way. Even if it’s bitter on my end, I just have to look at it as a blessing,” he said. “As far as Chicago goes, I kind of just needed to be traded because I wasn’t playing. That’s why Washington was so good for me.”
He speaks like someone in search of stability, and doesn’t mince words when asked about the last time he’s felt joy for the game of basketball. “It hasn’t been [100 percent] since I left college, to be honest with you. Because this is a business. The business part of it sucks. Basketball really hasn’t been the issue for me. I play this game and it pretty much comes natural. There’s other stuff that comes with it that I don’t like...I have to play on different teams.”
Parker declines to go into detail about how his role in Atlanta differs from previous stops “for security reasons,” but does describe it as “feasible...I utilize it.” For him as much as anyone, fit and timing are everything. One example from his own draft class is Andrew Wiggins, who’s benefiting from a new system, surrounding cast, and lowered expectations.
Parker may never make an All-Star team or live up to his pre-draft potential, and has yet to make contributions in a winning situation. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. He’s a better spot-up shooter than his current three-point percentage suggests, has quick-twitch athleticism, and touch that can’t be taught. But none of what we’ve seen on the Hawks guarantees he’ll ever again be good; Parker’s downsides are transparent and frustrating. The rest of this season is his opportunity to rectify those issues, or, at the very least, make them manageable in a meaningful spot.