Meet Khris Middleton, the Most Underrated Player in the NBA

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

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The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises, and Khris Middleton, their startlingly efficient, unsurprisingly versatile two-way nightmare, is one of the biggest reasons why.

For all the deserved accolades players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Brandon Knight (before he was traded), Jared Dudley and Jabari Parker (before he tore his ACL) have received, Middleton's play has been just as vital for the Bucks.

Milwaukee is never better on both ends than when Middleton is on the floor, according to NBA.comThe team's net rating goes from plus-10.0 points per 100 possessions when Middleton is on the court to minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions when he sits on the bench—the equivalent of going from the second-best team in the league to 25th. Woof.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Milwaukee’s offense melts when Middleton hits the pine, going from 104.9 points per 100 possessions to 98.7 points per 100 possessions. And the defense goes from 94.9 points per 100 possessions to 103.6 points per 100 possessions with Middleton on and off the court.

It's impossible to ignore these numbers, but we can’t solely lean on on/off numbers when measuring any one player’s influence (according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat, Middleton is the NBA’s sixth-best player). Still, this is still extremely impressive stuff and warrants closer examination. How is a third-year player who’s averaging fewer minutes than he did a year ago having an MVP-candidate-worthy impact on a playoff team?

Middleton was in and out of the starting lineup through the season’s first two months. Ever since a 10-point overtime win over the Charlotte Hornets on December 27, he’s started every single game. The Bucks were 16-16 that day and are now 30-23.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Since January 1, he’s averaging 14.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game (in 31.7 minutes). And he’s staying efficient, shooting 52.6 percent from the floor and 45.3 percent from behind the three-point line. 

How does he stay so effective? Middleton doesn't extend himself or attempt to burst through any offensive limitations. He's a self-aware basketball player. This is what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Charles F. Gardner:

I've been shooting the ball well but it just comes from playing within the offense and letting my teammates find me. I’m not trying to be overly aggressive; I'm not trying to force things. I'm just playing my game, just being patient.

I was getting the same shots at the beginning of the season. They just weren't falling. Now they are falling. I just have to keep shooting with confidence.

You have to play your game in this league. If you miss 10 in a row, you have to believe the next 10 are going to fall for you. Confidence is a huge thing in this league.

Middleton is a serious catch-and-shoot-or-drive threat, per NBA.com. He sits in the 90th percentile here, with an effective field-goal percentage of 60.3. When a driving teammate throws it to him on the wing, Middleton attacks his defender—who must close out hard while trying to contest the jumper—without hesitation.

Furthermore, Middleton is one of the most effective post-up players in the league. His back-to-the-basket attack ranks in the 90th percentile, averaging 1.04 points per possession in a 49-possession sample size—very impressive.

Here he is abusing Nik Stauskas in a recent game against the Sacramento Kings. As soon as the rookie entered the game, Middleton immediately attacked him in the post.

On defense, Middleton is the ideal contemporary player. He's long, he's quick, and he can guard three or four positions. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has taken advantage, unleashing Middleton in a switch-happy system that utilizes all he brings to the table.

In this particular play, he's a split-second slow switching from Stauskas to Ramon Sessions, but those long arms still help turn an open layup into a point-blank brick. (Jared Dudley certainly helps with a well-timed rotation from the weak side.) Middleton is adaptable and knows what he's supposed to do.

NBA.com

Middleton allows just 0.68 points per possession in isolation, which places him in the 82nd percentile. (Klay Thompson is in the 77th percentile.) And when defending pick-and-rolls, Middleton allows just 0.63 points per possession—good for the 88th percentile. Don't be surprised if his name pops up in Defensive Player of the Year conversations multiple times over the next five years. And don't blink if he makes an All-Defensive Team this season.

Jan 19, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton (22) during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The 23-year-old forward is carving through his third season with a $915,000 price tag. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Middleton is a restricted free agent this summer, and the market for his services will be through the roof. Is he getting a max contract? Let’s not go crazy.

But it’s entirely possible that some team extends an offer in the four-year, $40 million rangeperhaps higher. The Bucks can match any contract offer he gets, but that doesn't mean several teams won't try to pry him away.

Middleton is underrated right now, but a lot of his offensive success is due to his specialized role. He isn't asked to put the ball on the floor against a set half-court defense, constantly create for teammates or run pick-and-rolls. There's no telling how his efficiency would be affected if more responsibilities were dropped on his plate.

But Middleton's defensive versatility isn't going anywhere. He's a good player today but has the potential to achieve so much more in the years ahead. If your favorite team somehow signs him this summer, smile about it.

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

Michael Pina is an NBA writer whos been published at Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, Rolling Stone, Grantland and a few other very special places. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.

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