Meet Your 2021 NBA Champions, the Milwaukee Bucks

The fate of the franchise rests on Jabari Parker's left knee.

by Louis Keene
Oct 13 2017, 2:39pm

Photo by Mike De Sisti-USA TODAY Sports

For our 2017-18 NBA Season Preview, we're doing deep dives on five teams who can beat the Warriors in the next five years—and the players who can push them over the top.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's transformation from gangly neophyte into menacing prophet has been stunning not just for its pace but also for its smoothness. His is the rare story of tantalizing potential fully redeemed, and then some. He has increased his production in all five major statistical categories each of his four seasons in the league, and he's just 22. He'll tell us when he's done.

What the 6'11" matchup catastrophe can already do—defend from the perimeter to the rim, gyro-step across continents, dunk everything in sight—sets up the Milwaukee Bucks to contend for years to come. But even Antetokounmpo, Destroyer of Worlds will need help to take down the Golden State Warriors. By 2021, a fully formed Thon Maker, a somehow wilier Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton playing baseline jazz will be enough to make it a series.

Whether the Bucks can win that series depends on the team's other 22-year-old star forward, Jabari Parker. The injuries that have so far derailed Parker's career put the linearity of Antetokounmpo's ascent in stark relief. An athletic marvel in his own right, Parker had as much offensive polish coming out of college as any player drafted this decade. Stretching his bruising game to the three-point line last season, the former Duke Blue Devil emerged as the ideal counterpunch to Antetokounmpo. Together, they made half-court sets a paint-stripping cyclone of drives, dives, and back-cuts.

But for the second time in three years, Parker's season ended prematurely with a torn left ACL. The short list of NBA players who have sustained this knee injury twice does not offer an especially promising outlook for Parker's recovery. Michael Redd was a shell of himself after a 14-month absence. Baron Davis never made it back. Tony Wroten fails to register.

Parker's second ACL tear. Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

And yet, everyone who knows Jabari Parker thinks his story will end differently. "Jabari believes he's supposed to be special," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "And he's willing to pay the price to be special. Road blocks like this, which are supposed to be big ones, are not going to deter him reaching that destination."

Parker has more than an army of believers supporting him in his recovery. He also has the steady march of science at his back, and one of the best ACL rehabbers in the world in his corner. And he's still just 22.

When an NBA player tears an anterior cruciate ligament, he usually hears a pop. It's the sound of his femur and tibia separating from each other as the rope connecting them frays and the cartilage surrounding the joint cuts loose. The surgery requires about a year's worth of rehab.

Why injuries of the anterior cruciate ligament have been on the rise over the past decade is anyone's guess. "It's the Nobel Prize–winning question," said Dr. David Altchek, who performed Parker's first ACL surgery. The sheer force being applied to knee joints by increasingly explosive athletes could be one liability; looking at the NBA specifically, Dr. Altchek blames the Eurostep.

The operation is fairly standard. The surgeon takes a graft, usually of the patellar tendon, and uses it to build a new ACL. If the new ACL fails—as Parker's did—a second graft will be taken for the revision, usually from the opposite knee, but the success rate of an ACL revision surgery is lower—about 75 percent, according to Dr. Robert LaPrade, who performed Parker's second surgery. "The biology of the whole healing response is not as precise," Altchek said.

That would seem to spell trouble for a player of Parker's intensity, and it does—no medical professional would deny the vulnerability of his left knee henceforth. But an avalanche of research and innovation in ACL injury prevention and recovery could swing his future.

One study, funded by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, investigates the effectiveness of HGH in rehabilitating the injury. Another explores the insertion of a synthetic brace around the ligament. Stem-cell injections and platelet-rich plasma treatments are already being performed in the United States to accelerate healing; though their effectiveness has not been empirically proven, it's not hard to imagine something along those lines becoming standard practice down the road.

Meanwhile, Parker has been seen dunking. He's only seven months removed from his surgery, and five months away from his slated return, but Parker's second comeback is already looking a lot like his first. Reporters who have seen him practicing the past few weeks say he's showing no ill effects in non-contact drills—pivoting and showing burst, elevating off of one foot and two.

He has plenty going for him his second time around. He was in peak physical condition when he went down, which he has said allowed his recovery to begin earlier. Age is on his side. And he has the resilience of a damn CAA intern. Look at what Parker told Sports Illustrated in a video posted online Thursday:

I see beauty in my scars. They tell my story. And when I'm able to uplift myself from those positions, I'm always going to backtrack and remind myself the grit, the pain, the disappointment that it's gonna take to be successful one day.

What the Bucks will not say—the team did not make anyone available for this story—is how he has gotten up to speed this quickly.

Occam's razor would suggest the guidance of Suki Hobson, the team's director of strength and conditioning who also oversaw Parker's first ACL comeback. Originally from England, Hobson honed her craft in Australia, which is famous for producing some of the world's top sports scientists (including several who work for NBA teams today). She rehabbed fallen rugby players, footballers, and BMX riders before joining the Bucks' staff about six months after Parker's first ACL injury.

Hobson's knowledge of knee function, one trainer told me, is considered industry-leading. And Parker's training program seemed fun, an American Ninja Warrior–esque gauntlet of trampolines, balance beams, and monkey bars. Now it includes dunking. If nothing else, it's a promising indicator of the player Hobson is trying to rebuild, and of his place in the offense Milwaukee wants to restore.

The funny thing is, the knock on Jabari Parker coming out of college was that he wasn't particularly athletic. That was a misconception, partly a function of context—he was picked immediately after YouTube demigod Andrew Wiggins—and also the result of a foot injury that sidelined him for much of his senior year of high school and limited him at Duke.

"We never got the 100 percent Jabari here," said Jeff Capel, a Duke assistant coach who remains close with Parker. "People forgot that he was this great athlete in high school [before] he hurt his foot." He came into the NBA at 19 years old, seemingly with baby fat still on his arms. His knee gave out only 25 games in.

It was not until Jabari 2.0, the goateed player coming off that first ACL tear in late 2015, that the NBA saw his tape-measure verticality, that Jamesian blend of power and agility. In handing the Golden State Warriors their first loss in a record-breaking 73-9 season, Parker poured in 19 points, showcasing the full package of transition scoring, off-ball creativity, and touch from the perimeter. Jabari 3.0, debuting in late February 2018, might somehow be even scarier.

2021 is a long way away, with everyone but Antetokounmpo and Maker up for new contracts between now and then. If the Bucks can't reach an extension with Parker before this season starts, he'll be a restricted free agent next summer. But teams with championship aspirations don't let great assets walk. He figures to be in Milwaukee for a few more playoff runs.

Time, luck, and science will tell how deep Parker can take them—how long he can last in the ring with Draymond Green, whether his lateral movement will ever fully return, what kind of player he will be. But Parker isn't feeling bad for himself. He'll be making up for lost time starting again in February.

"He has a way, man, which is weird, it's so different," Capel said. "He's had these two injuries. He was playing great and all of a sudden it happened. But right afterwards he's reassuring you—you're heartbroken and all those things, and he's the one picking you up. He's strong, he's resilient, and he came back better and more explosive. I think you're going to see the same thing from this injury."

Bouncing back from a second torn ACL on a 12-month timeline wouldn't be normal. A full recovery sustained through his athletic prime might be even more improbable. But maybe that makes it Parker's most likely outcome.

"I mean, he's a freak," Capel added with a chuckle. "Some guys are like that."