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Riding the Jabari Parker rollercoaster

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Has Boston’s late-season flier shown long-term promise?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

In a season riddled with COVID, injuries and general inconsistency, the Boston Celtics have been a team searching for answers for months now. The big ticket changes came at the trade deadline, with the team bringing in former Magic wing Evan Fournier to contribute to the team for the remainder of the season and (hopefully) beyond. While the deadline moves have been by and large considered successful, one smaller subsequent move has been significantly more polarizing to fans across the last few weeks: the signing of Jabari Parker.

Midway through April, the Celtics inked Parker — who had not been on an NBA roster since being released by the Sacramento Kings earlier this season — to a minimum contract with a non-guaranteed second year. Now, with Parker now seeing some surprise rotation minutes in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, it seems like a good time to evaluate what he’s shown in his brief stint with the Celtics. Is he merely a guest appearance for the remainder of this season, unlikely to see his non-guaranteed second year pick up, or is there actually a place for him in Boston beyond the next few weeks?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There are two performances that stand out as Parker’s best in Celtics green: his debut with the team on April 17 and Game 1 against Brooklyn last weekend. In the former, Parker scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting and finished as a +6 on the night in a five-point win over the Warriors. In the latter, he played easily his most significant minutes of the season, scoring 9 points and largely surviving defensively to help the Celtics to a surprising halftime lead.

The commonality between both of these performances is that Parker was deployed as a change-of-pace, someone who wouldn’t have game-planned for. Against the Warriors, he took the court just one day after inking his new deal with the Celtics, an admirable performance for a player who had no time to acclimate to his new surroundings. Against Brooklyn, he served as one of Brad Stevens’ patented playoff change-ups like inserting Gerald Green or Jonas Jerebko, recording 21 minutes after having been largely out of the rotation for the previous nine games (not counting the pair of rest games that closed the regular season).

Both games highlighted what Parker does well. He’s an interior shot creator on a team who struggles to consistently generate good looks inside. On a bench of players who largely lack either the experience or skill to create their own shots, he can put the ball on the floor and generate looks for himself. It’s the one constant through his time in Boston — he’s scored inside the arc, connecting on 27 of his 44 two-point attempts, a 61% rate that would be a career-high across a full season.

When Stevens deploys Parker as a fastball down the middle rather than a change-up, however, opposing teams have generally been able to square up on him. When he returned to the court in the second half against Brooklyn, Nets coach Steve Nash was prepared. He became the target of the Nets’ formidable offense over and over while he was on the court, as they hunted switches to attack him off the dribble.

It’s worth noting that, while he has been far less effective against Brooklyn since that first half, Parker has actually held up reasonably well on the defensive end, more or less. The Nets have been hunting him, yes, but his actual contests have been relatively solid. There’s just not much any defender could really do against shot-making like this (or the above clip, for that matter).

That’s sort of the rub with Parker as an NBA player. If he can just tread water defensively, even below average or so, he can probably be a situationally useful big man. There’s an inclination to feel like he should be; he looks the part of a physical bucket-getter as a hybrid forward. The hope that he would blossom into a special kind of scorer was why he was drafted with the second overall pick in 2014.

The issue is that he is not a particularly special scorer. He’s merely a workable one; less of a wing now and more of a small-ball big who can battle inside the arc, and one still prone to overly difficult mid-range jumpers. He flashed a slightly-better-than-league-average three-point shot from 2016 to 2018 with the Bucks, but he’s been a sub-30% shooter from deep ever since (28% on 325 attempts). Between the regular season and playoffs, Parker has hit only three of his 13 three-point attempts in Boston.

Compounding this is the fact that he’s not just a bad defender, he’s generally a scheme-compromisingly terrible one. You don’t have to rewind too far to revisit Stevens and the Celtics dicing him to pieces across their seven game series win over the Bucks in the first round of the 2018 Playoffs. Plays like this just do not cut it in the playoffs — and this was probably his best defensive night in Boston.

You can start to see how these constraints gradually chip away at Parker’s overall usefulness as a player. He’s an undersized big who can’t really function as a wing, can’t play consistently effective defense, can’t score from outside 15 feet and doesn’t distinguish himself as a rebounder. Rumors of the death of the NBA big man have been greatly exaggerated, but this particular archetype of big has certainly gone the way of the dinosaur.

For a long time, the gold standard for underachieving combo forwards drafted in the high lottery was old Celtics friend Jeff Green. Taken in the top five back in 2007, Green spent years bouncing around the league, tempting fans with his bursts of potential but never really putting it all together. In a twist of fate, Green might be now the guiding light for such players with his reinvention in recent seasons; he grew as a defender, found a consistent three-point shot, expanded his game as a versatile wing and small-ball big and became a respected veteran locker room presence. Now, he’s playing an important rotation role (despite being ruled out for the rest of the series with a strained plantar fascia) for the very same Nets that will likely end Boston’s season in coming days as they aspire to an NBA championship.

Doubtless the Celtics hoped to find a reclamation project like Green when they signed Parker to his partially-guaranteed deal. But while that may have been a fine enough gamble on a minimum contract to finish out this season (especially given that they never truly got healthy, and weren’t likely to meaningfully contend), there hasn’t been a whole lot to suggest that he’s a different guy right now than the one we saw in his 295 preceding NBA appearances. He’s a situationally useful forward during the regular season, but his many substantial drawbacks are still present, and in the current NBA, he’s a player that a team with serious playoff intent can’t afford to play when it matters.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. A team will probably find a spot for him this offseason for that kind of situational performance. Like Green with the 2018-19 Wizards, what’s best for Parker might be to find a young franchise that will offer him big minutes and an opportunity to grow as a player and veteran leader without immediate pressure. He’s still only 26 years old after all; Green didn’t find his way until he was 32 and playing for his seventh NBA team.

In the greater scheme of things, though, the Celtics are likely too overstocked in such limited-use players already for that spot to be in Boston. The many absences this roster struggled through this season shined a light on the lack of consistent, plug-and-play role players coming off the bench. Just look at the rest of their crop of reserve forwards: Grant Williams looks highly matchup-dependent as a defensive-minded big who can’t really function as a wing, and it looks more and more like Semi Ojeleye doesn’t belong on an NBA court at all. Only rookie Aaron Nesmith looks like he could potentially grow into a 25-minutes-every-night kind of role (if not more).

For the Celtics, it’s time to simplify the rotation with players who can dependably play in a variety of different circumstances. They need to find their own 2021 version of Jeff Green, and Jabari Parker has more in common with the 2014 iteration right now. The book has far from shut on Parker just yet, but it’s likely in the best interest for both player and team to part ways this coming offseason.