ST. FRANCIS – Jabari Parker was utterly breathless when he was told he’d been named to the U.S. team for the Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star Weekend, but it wasn’t out of shock or excitement about the honor.
The second-year forward had just finished half a dozen full-court wind sprints and, dripping sweat and panting heavily, needed a few moments to put his hands over his head and gulp some air. When he’d caught enough breath to respond to questions about his biggest professional achievement thus far – the league had announced the news only minutes before he came off the court – he was indifferent.
"I don’t care," Parker said after Bucks practice on Wednesday. "The real deal counts to me."
That’s the mantra for the unassuming Parker, who later allowed that "it feels great" to participate in All-Star Weekend. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft who missed most of his rookie year with a torn ACL and endured a grueling rehab, Parker has reiterated his basic, industrious refrain throughout this season: work hard, get better, help the team, become the player he knows he can be.
On Wednesday, those efforts were evident in the form of specific drills with assistant coach Sean Sweeney. While his teammates took jumpers from familiar spots on the floor at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin Training Center, Parker worked over and over on finishing off pick-and-rolls, an essential set of every NBA offense in which he hasn’t been as involved as many had hoped and predicted. Later, the only Bucks player that hasn’t made a 3-pointer this season among those that have attempted one – with a reminder of that "0%" displayed on a nearby whiteboard – shot baseline 3s, again and again, at one point making four in a row.
And then those sprints; Parker was the only guy who ran them.
Whether evaluating by empirical, eyeball measure or Vine highlight dunks, it’s plain to see Parker is in great shape. While the slope of his statistical improvement has been gradual – or regressive; at 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, he’s actually under his 12.3 and 5.5 averages of last year – his speed in transition and explosiveness at the basket (Jambari!) evince increased fitness and athleticism.
The Bucks had 18 fast-break points in their 107-100 home win over the Magic on Tuesday. Michael Carter-Williams got deflections, Giannis Antetokounmpo had steals that he turned into slams, John Henson blocked four shots. On a team that’s in the league’s bottom-third in most offensive categories and sometimes suffers long spells of cold shooting, the capacity to turn defense into offense, to get out and run and score easy baskets in transition, is even more important as an avenue to points.
"Right now, that’s our focus and we need to improve, especially me, getting into the lanes," Parker said. "You’ve got Giannis, you’ve got Mike, we’ve got to use our athletic ability. That’s really huge – steals, getting into the frontcourt, stuff like that."
Parker indicated his post-practice sprints weren’t a coach-enforced punishment. They’re part of his own renewed fire, an example of why he’s not the same player he was a season ago.
"I think it’s a difference from last year just because I want to be here," Parker said, referring to practice. "It’s not about, you know, wanting to prove something; it’s just that I want, personally, to reach my goals and reach my levels. That’s all it is – just being in here, wanting to get the extra work in, that’s the difference."
That’s a difference in mindset, attitude. Presumably, it’s also a demonstration of growth and maturity in a 20-year-old who’s beginning to recognize what it takes to succeed as a pro and do this as a career.
But what’s different about Parker as a basketball player today compared to when this season – his second, but functionally still his first – started three months ago?
"Definitely, it’s my defense," he said. And perhaps to preempt the dubious reactions of those that would condemn his 111 defensive rating (which estimates the number of points a player allows per 100 possessions), and perhaps to clarify his answer, Parker continued.
"My defensive awareness, I’m not as lost," he said. "Being able to communicate, I’m talking more. My feel of the game is a little bit more where I want it to be."
Head coach Jason Kidd has seen the same things, noting Parker’s improved team comfort and conceptual understanding.
"I think just the time on the floor," Kidd said of the difference. "His time on the floor last year was shortchanged in the sense of the injury. The biggest change is just getting minutes under his belt to understand the NBA game."
On Feb. 12 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Parker will get to experience another side of the NBA game – a more fun and no-doubt less-serious side in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Though he was not aware of the format change from rookies vs. sophomores to U.S. against the World, which will feature Kristaps Porzingis and other international stars, and initially said he didn’t care about being selected, Parker admitted he had fond memories of watching the game and called it "sort of a dream come true."
"As a kid you always looked up to those games, and when I was young they had real good classes," Parker said, specifically citing the 2004 game in Los Angeles, which featured sophomores like Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire beating the "loaded" rookie class containing LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.
When it was mentioned that 2004 was also the last year the Bucks had a player selected for the All-Star Game, Parker was one step ahead ("Michael Redd, yeah").
The popular Parker is happy to represent Milwaukee at All-Star Weekend and said "it would be real nice" for the Bucks to get an All-Star. He added that it’s something he and Antetokounmpo "definitely" have discussed.
"It’s something that we talk about all the time, me and Giannis being young, you know, Khris (Middleton) is up there, he’s an All-Star in our books," Parker said. "It’s just a matter of time, when we start winning. It’s going to happen."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.