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Jabari Parker is a war of the head vs. the heart for the Chicago Bulls

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Jabari Parker’s return to Chicago is a great story. It just isn’t a great signing for the Bulls.

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I had to wait forever to talk to Jabari Parker. That’s the thing I remember most about Pick Up for Peace, the free basketball game Parker put on to help unite Chicago during one of its bloodiest summers. Days earlier, Parker was on an ESPN town hall speaking about race relations and the need to curb the violence in his hometown. Now he was surrounded by the community he sought to preserve, taking pictures with seemingly every kid in attendance as they flooded the court once the game ended.

Parker was only 21 at the time, but a sense of civic responsibility was already deeply ingrained in him. I got my interview with Parker eventually, and he spoke about the need for positive role models in his city. It was obvious he was already one.

Jabari is a Chicago kid through and through, the golden child of Chicago’s golden generation that stretched from D. Rose to Anthony Davis to Cliff and Jahlil. His Wikipedia page is the length of a short novel, and almost entirely focused on his prep career. Four-time state champion at Simeon. Sports Illustrated cover boy. McDonald’s All-American. The next big thing.

Those accolades seem so long ago now. Jabari Parker isn’t prodigy anymore, he’s just trying to avoid going down as a draft bust. His story is a cold reminder of the game’s harsh realities. The scars on his left knee are a visible sign of that, already undergoing ACL surgery twice before he turned 22 years old. That’s where the problems with Parker’s pro career start, but it’s not where they end.

The NBA game flipped sometime around when Parker was drafted, and it hasn’t stopped claiming victims. Okafor is the most prescient example, a low post behemoth who would have been a star in the ‘90s and now can’t even get on the court. Parker may be another casualty. The game isn’t just about buckets anymore, it’s about the price those buckets come at. Points per game is the last metric smart teams use to evaluate players. It’s no longer enough to be a one-trick pony, even if you’re good at that trick and that trick is historically the basis for the entire sport.

Parker can score, there is little doubt of that. He was averaging 20 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field as a 21-year-old when he went down with his second ACL tear. He was still able to rack up points after the second surgery, returning mid-season this past year and flashing the athleticism, soft touch and body control that once made him a can’t-miss prospect. He had some good games in the playoffs when the Bucks finally gave him a chance. He was also effectively run off the floor in Game 7 of that series vs. the Celtics, posting a team-worst -24 in only 29 minutes.

The Bucks were always better with Parker off the floor, a telling stat that underscores the cost his scoring comes at. For as much as he brings to the table, he also takes so much away from it. He simply doesn’t have a well-rounded game.

The most important skill in today’s NBA might be defensively versatility, the ability to switch screens defensively and check multiple positions. Parker does not have the lateral quickness for it, nor does he have the instincts to position himself in the right place at the right time. He’s too heavy and too slow for the modern game. What’s scary is he doesn’t even seem to think his defense is an issue. How is he supposed to improve if he doesn’t recognize how the game has passed him by?

For such a thoughtful kid, Parker also isn’t a terribly high IQ player on the floor. He shoots from mid-range too much and doesn’t shoot from three enough. He has almost as many turnovers as assists in his brief NBA career. He’s more of a one-on-one scorer than someone who elevates the game of his teammates.

There are places where Jabari Parker could have been successful (Brooklyn and Cleveland come to mind). I have my doubts the Bulls are one of them. Ideally, Parker needs to be playing the four surrounded by shooters and tough defenders with a playmaker at point guard who can break down the defense to get him easy looks on cuts and open up the floor for his mid-range attacking. In Chicago, he’ll be pigeonholed into small forward because the Bulls’ two brightest young building blocks are already entrenched in the front court.

Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are the most promising pieces of this Bulls’ rebuild, but now it’s a real concern each will be marginalized as Parker and Zach LaVine — a player with similar skills and similar warts — take the lion’s share of offensive possessions. Instead of running the offense through the young big men, there’s a real chance the Bulls tell Markkanen to space in the corner and tell Carter to rebound. In reality, they’d be better served to run the whole offense through Carter the way Boston does with Al Horford and the way they used to do with Joakim Noah.

Meanwhile, Kris Dunn will be running the show and playing for a new contract himself. He just saw LaVine and Parker get $40 million by chucking shots and boosting their points per game. What incentive does he have to focus on being the type of playmaking facilitator and lockdown defender this team desperately needs?

Yes, signing Parker is a low risk move. They weren’t going to do anything else with the cap space. Getting the team option on the second year of the deal is huge. He’s overpaid, but it’s not my money. That said, by giving him $20 million per year, the Bulls are effectively setting the market against themselves if he puts up numbers this season. It’s not like he’s going to want a long-term deal at $12 million annually now.

Ultimately, I think the Jabari signing exposes this front office as a branch that still doesn’t know what it’s doing despite nailing the last two drafts — they would have taken worse players over Carter (who is a stud) if given the opportunity. Everyone knows Jabari isn’t a three. Anyone can see how redundant his skill set is with LaVine’s. Hell, David Nwaba might be a more valuable player in today’s game, and the Bulls let him go so they could bid against themselves for Parker.

This is so reminiscent of the Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo signings, leaning into the hometown angle and the marketing opportunities that come with it at the expense of sensible basketball decisions. If Parker was born in Texas, would the Bulls have signed him? Why should that matter?

(Quick aside: do you know who this Bulls team could really use right now? Rondo. A high-IQ veteran point guard to get the offense flowing would be invaluable for these Bulls.)

I would love nothing more than to be wrong. I want to be wrong so badly. The Bulls haven’t had someone to make us care since the Rose was going full stink face, Joakim Noah was making jazz hands and Taj Gibson was giving us those sly smiles. Jabari cares about Chicago and Chicago would love nothing more than to care about him.

Parker is a great kid. A return to form in his hometown would be such a great story. There’s just so many hurdles in the way. My heart loves that Jabari Parker is back in Chicago. My head is seriously doubting that he can be a winning piece for the next Bulls team that contends.