Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton Is the NBA's Most Overlooked Star

Michael PinaFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 18:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks controls the ball as Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors defends during the game at ORACLE Arena on March 18, 2017 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With Paul George's signature shoe on his feet and a small bandage over his left eye, Khris Middleton inched his way through a series of set shots. It was Wednesday night, a couple of hours before his Milwaukee Bucks were set to take on the first-place Boston Celtics and a few minutes before his coach, Jason Kidd, called him "an All-Star player."

Middleton's arms—best fit for a crane—flapped toward the basket as two ball boys fed him pass after pass. Even after he drifted well behind the three-point line, Middleton barely jumped primarily because he didn't have to: Almost every shot still greeted the rim like a pillow falling into a pile of leaves. The 25-year-old looked too prepared for the task ahead.

Middleton doesn't play or look the part of a star, especially in comparison to some of his teammates, like blossoming science experiment Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker, who was arguably the best in-game dunker in the league before he tore his ACL in February. Middleton's game doesn't overpower or intimidate. His personal highlight reel is less exciting than a metronome, and there's a serene quality to how he splices passivity and aggressiveness. He's more cat burglar than Godzilla.

"He goes unnoticed," Kidd said. "For whatever reason, he's underrated, so he doesn't get a lot of attention, and he just goes about his business. ... He gives a lot of people confidence when he's on the floor."

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 17:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during warm up before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 17, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
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But it's borderline strange for someone who consistently impacts games the way Middleton does to go unrecognized. Especially since he checks just about every box desired of players at his position in today's NBA: shot creation, three-point shooting and defensive versatility. He makes impossible attempts look easy, spaces the floor and navigates potholes to lessen the burden on his teammates, drawing help before making intelligent, crafty passes off the dribble.

"I was a late bloomer coming out of high school; same thing with college," Middleton told Bleacher Report. "I know what I mean to my team, so to tell you the truth, I really don't care what outsiders think about my game—if I'm underrated or overrated or whatever. I'm just gonna do my job and do what my team needs me to do."

Last season, Middleton ranked 20th in real plus-minus, per ESPN.com, and 15th in offensive RPM—ahead of Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, Mike Conley, John Wall, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan. The year before, he was 10th overall.

A torn hamstring kept him sidelined until Feb. 8 this season, but in 24 games, he's averaging 18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes, making 44.7 percent of his threes and 47.1 percent of his mid-range shots (which ranks fifth in the league, behind Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, CJ McCollum and Kawhi Leonard and just ahed of Kevin Durant).

It's that last part that can't be overlooked. Yes, it's a small sample size in an age when long twos are frowned upon. But players who create for themselves and hit tough shots seemingly whenever they want are forever invaluable. Limiting Middleton's effectiveness inside the arc—and especially along the baseline, which is his own personal amusement park—is almost impossible for defenses that can otherwise protect the rim or run him off the three-point line.

Until his body feels like it did before the injury, this is where he'll feast. For now, 21.7 percent of Middleton's shots have been long twos with a defender between two and four feet away. He's making 41.7 percent of them—think DeRozan with a three-point shot—and of the 63 players who attempt at least four pull-up jumpers per game, only six are more accurate than Middleton. When deployed in moderation, nothing deflates an opponent more than a made basket that can't be guarded any better than it was.

NBA.com

NBA.com

After Wednesday's game in Boston—a three-point win against one of the best teams in the NBA on the second night of a back-to-back—the Milwaukee offense was averaging 112.1 points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor, the highest mark on the team. He crosses a tailor's precision with the breezy demeanor of a surf instructor. For opposing coaches, that's about as scary as it gets—he perfectly complements the Bucks' other offensive weapons.

"Middleton spaces the floor. He can run off screens and score," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He's a really good scorer cutting off the ball. He's gotten better, I think, as time's gone on in pick-and-roll and with the ball. And then he's a knockdown shooter."

Kidd likes to stagger Middleton and Antetokounmpo to ensure at least one of them is always on the floor. It's a devastating split that embeds the fifth-year pro in second units against opposing benches. It's in those situations where he and the Bucks really wreak havoc.

"Maybe I have the ball in my hands a little bit more, but I just try to play the same way," Middleton said. "Play aggressive, play smart and try to make the game easier for my teammates."

That's a tad modest. Middleton is more efficient without Antetokounmpo despite his usage rate spiking 8.5 percent. Milwaukee's offensive rating is hardly affected, and its net rating goes from plus-5.0 to plus-11.2. So much of this is thanks to how he regularly dominates his one-on-one matchups, particularly when his back is to the basket. He's a mismatch nightmare who takes his time and forces three-second violations out of antsy help defenders. Middleton is patient enough to find cutters while also being faster than a mousetrap when he knows he can score.

(Watch Matthew Dellavedova's perfect back screen on Danilo Gallinari. The play below wouldn't be possible without it.)

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"People pay so much attention to him; I just really play off of him," Bucks big man Greg Monroe said. "He's a very smart player. He makes the game easier for everybody around him. Most of the time when we're in the pick-and-roll, I just try to set a good screen and make sure I roll or get to the open place where he can find me if he wants to pass it."

Sometimes Middleton will drop a perfect pass to said spot before Monroe even knows he's open. Other times he'll leverage his gravity as one of the game's best shooters off a pindown screen (a la JJ Redick or Ray Allen).

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A funny thing happened when Middleton returned from his injury. The Bucks—arguably the worst clutch team in the NBA until that point—started to loosen up down the stretch. Before his debut, they were 11-15 with the NBA's worst offense and a minus-23.9 net rating in games in which the margin was within five points with five minutes to play. Since, Milwaukee is 10-2 and has the NBA's eighth-best net rating in such games.

"He's the most unselfish shooter I've ever seen," Bucks forward-center Thon Maker said. "He's putting the ball on the floor, taking his time. He's not rushing. He's very, very under control, clutch down the stretch. So he just kills the defense at his own pace, and for us that really helps."

Last season, 13.9 percent of Middleton's points came on fast breaks. This year, that figure is all the way down to 5.1 percent.

Talk to anyone on the Bucks—from an 18-year veteran like Jason Terry to rookies Maker and Malcolm Brogdon—and they can't help but cite Middleton's calming presence. He takes over without taking over, blending himself into the game, influencing it with a subtlety that reveals why he remains so underrated.

"Defensively, he's the smartest player we have, and offensively, he understands where to go to get his shot off," Terry said. "But not only that, when he draws the defense, he makes the right decision. He's intense, but you'll never see it. His facial expression never changes, and that's something that's very valuable to this team because you have a young team, and he's even-keel whether we're winning by 20 or down 20. He's just even-keel, and he stays the course."

Most NBA teams would happily swap their current second option for Middleton and never look back. He doesn't average 28 points, flirt with triple-doubles or regularly lock down elite scorers, but it's so hard to find any weaknesses that'll prevent him from climbing to an All-Star level as he enters his prime.

When asked what Middleton needs to work on the most, Monroe crinkled his nose after a long pause.

"He's pretty solid in all areas," he said.

That's not entirely true, at least not this season. Again, it's a small sample size, but Middleton is uncharacteristically struggling to finish around the basket. He said some of that's because he needs to re-familiarize himself with contact, and there's a noticeable lack of burst once he gets into the paint. Middleton is shooting 3.2 percentage points worse than league average in the restricted area after he was just 0.2 percentage points worse last season.

In order for him to go from an underappreciated two-way cog to second fiddle on a possible championship contender, he'll need to own the court's most precious real estate and get to the free-throw line more than the 3.6 times per game he's averaging this season.

But that's just something to keep an eye on, and beyond it there's not much to worry about. There are no major flaws in Middleton's game, and the only two teams with more wins since his season debut are the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. The day when even the most casual fan knows who Khris Middleton is feels like it's right around the corner.

    

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics via Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate as of March 31.