Back Home, Jabari Parker Is Smiling Again

"It's always been a dream to me," Parker says of joining the Bulls.

Cody Westerlund
July 18, 2018 - 2:02 pm
Bulls forward Jabari Parker

Cody Westerlund/670 The Score

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- As Jabari Parker’s tenure with the Bucks wound down, Simeon Career Academy coach and Parker confidante Robert Smith monitored the situation closely. He didn’t like what he saw and heard.

“I watched him and I looked at him in the playoffs, and he didn’t really have a smile on his face,” Smith said. “It was almost like he was being forced to play. Now I can look at him, and he’s smiling again.”

Parker was doing plenty of that Wednesday, when he was introduced by the Bulls in the shadow of the Michael Jordan statue at the United Center atrium after signing a two-year, $40-million deal over the weekend to return to his hometown, where he led Simeon to four state titles in his prep career. It was a day of celebration that left his family, friends and new organization enthused.

Since he was young basketball prodigy growing up on the South Side, Parker has long displayed an even-keeled, soft-spoken disposition. Basketball has been his “passion.” It hasn’t been his life, as he has also viewed it as a platform to make a difference in his community.

To come back home meant something to the 23-year-old Parker, who idolizes fellow Simeon legend and former Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, the youngest player in league history to win MVP.

“I felt like I wanted to a Chicago Bull as soon as they showed interest,” Parker said. “Because it’s always been a dream to me, especially to come back home.”

Parker landed with the Bulls after the Bucks decided he didn’t fit their future that’s centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Parker’s role in the playoffs was cut drastically in the first two games of an eventual first-round series loss to the Celtics, and that weighed on him. Last Saturday, the Bucks took the unusual step of working with Parker’s agency to rescind their qualifying offer to Parker, allowing the Bulls to sign him as an unrestricted free agent, which allowed the second year of the deal to be a team option that provides flexibility. A “few other teams” had made a pitch, Parker said.

In a different competitive stage as an organization and with money to spend in the 2018-'19 season, the Bulls weren’t eyeing fit as much as they were the addition of young talent, which Parker boasts as the second overall pick in the 2014 draft. He has averaged 15.3 points and shot 49 percent for his career.

“We feel like even though we haven’t had him, we know him,” general manager Gar Forman said of following his success at Simeon, doing scouting work when Parker went to Duke for a year and then facing the Bucks so often.

“On top of his basketball skills and tools – which we think he’s got great, great potential for continued growth – everybody we talked to talked about his work ethic, his makeup, his character, of him being the type of guy we’d want to build with this young core.”

Multiple people around Parker pointed out he accomplished what he did with the Bucks despite plays rarely being called for him. Parker’s hope is to be counted on more in Chicago.

The Bulls are ready to give him that opportunity, though they’re well-aware sacrifice will be key amid a young core headlined by Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and now Parker.

“You look at Jabari and Zach on the wings, we should have as athletic a two-three – (Jabari) can slide down and play the four – as any team in the league,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So if we can be committed to getting the ball up and down the floor, we have a chance in my opinion to play a very exciting style of basketball and be a very high-powered offensive team.”

Parker’s arrival comes with questions regarding his on-floor fit. The 6-foot-8 Parker, who was last listed at 250 pounds, is lined up to start at small forward. Some of his best professional success has come at power forward.

He’s a gifted natural scorer. He has often been a weak link defensively. Hoiberg mentioned the Bulls have been experimenting with new defensive schemes in the offseason and at Vegas Summer League, then cited the athleticism of Parker and LaVine in downplaying concerns on that end.

“There were some things we that we really like with what we did as far as the trends in the league and switching of defenses and different ways we were playing,” Hoiberg said. “I think Jabari and Zach will both fit in very well with that type of system. They’re both very athletic. They both have great feet. We should be able to in my opinion take a step forward with our defense this year.”

Parker has also had two left knee surgeries. He tore his ACL in December 2014, cutting his rookie season short. He then tore that ACL again in February 2017, keeping him out almost an entire calendar year from game action. Those close to him believes he now looks like his old self.

“If you look at his body, he looks great,” Smith said.

“His work ethic is off the charts. He understands he has to take better care of his body as well.”

The Bulls hold flexibility in deciding their future after the addition of Parker. If the year-long experiment works, they can exercise the team option for $20 million or decline it and sign him to a new deal if Parker seeks longer-term security. In that latter case, the new deal could be for up to four years.

If this doesn’t work out, Chicago can let him walk next summer and be a major player in free agency with ample cap space in July 2019.

Those answers will reveal themselves over the course of 82 games. Parker is just happy to have the chance to prove himself in a new environment, with an opportunity to shine for a team that could use his infusion of talent.

“I don’t look at is as a lot of pressure,” Parker said of returning to his hometown. “I’m just looking forward to building new memories, especially with the young core that we have.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.