Khris Middleton Primed to Be One of Free Agency's Best Values

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 24, 2015

Milwaukee Bucks’ Khris Middleton (22) moves the ball up court against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

In relative terms, third-year Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton will obliterate his bank this summer.

The former second-round pick has suited up for the door-busting clearance rate of $915,000 this season. By next year, he could be collecting nearly 10 times that amount.

"One NBA assistant general manager estimated Middleton will receive a multiyear contract that will average around $7 million annually; another NBA official predicted Middleton will be paid $8M per year," wrote Gery Woelfel of The (Racine) Journal Times.

That amount might sound absurd, given both his current salary and stature across the league.

But if the rate looks funny going forward, it won't be due to Middleton failing to live up to his next contract. With the massive arsenal he possesses, he could make a case for being grossly underpaid.

Climbing the NBA Ladder

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 14:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks brings the ball up court against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 14, 2015 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Few, if any, saw a future this bright for the 23-year-old.

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He was the 39th overall selection in the 2012 draft, nestled in between the forgettable duo of Quincy Miller and Will Barton. The Detroit Pistons slow-played Middleton as a rookie, trotting him out just 27 times the entire year. In July 2013, Detroit sent him to Milwaukee in a deal that appeared to be about the starting point guards trading places: Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings.

But the Bucks viewed Middleton as far more than a throw-in.

"We had always looked at Khris as a foundation piece," Milwaukee general manager John Hammond told ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle.

More importantly, team execs didn't keep that sentiment to themselves.

"When I got here, I talked to John Hammond, a couple other guys in the front office...how they thought of me as a player, how they wanted me here, how they thought I could be a good piece for them in the future," Middleton told Bleacher Report by phone Monday. "I believed them...so all I had to do was try to put in the work and try to earn some playing time."

"From the day I got here, they really believed in me and that definitely helped me out on the court," he added.

Middleton's hyper-efficient stat sheet paints a clear picture of that confidence's importance.

Each time he takes the floor, he seems to send his career trajectory higher. His sophomore campaign showed what he was capable of in a full-time role. This season's post-All-Star-break surge has once again elevated his ceiling.

ESPN.com's all-encompassing real plus-minus rating gives Middleton the eighth-best score in the entire league (6.38). His post-All-Star split shows him matching Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry's scoring volume (18.1) with better efficiency (46.2 percent shooting to 41.6). Middleton's 43.3 three-point percentage is the NBA's third highest, ahead of both Golden State Warriors snipers Klay Thompson (43.1) and Stephen Curry (42.0).

It's been an expectation-shattering season for Middleton, only he doesn't see it that way.

"I had the confidence to be this type of player," Middleton says. "Just being myself, playing my role, trying to take advantage of the opportunity when it's given to me."

His responsibility list has exponentially grown since the Bucks moved Knight at the trade deadline to the Phoenix Suns in a three-team deal that brought in Michael Carter-Williams from the Philadelphia 76ers. They have needed more from Middleton as a scorer and vocal leader.

Suffice to say, he's answered both calls.

Seizing His Opportunity

MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 7: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes for the layup against the Washington Wizards during the game on March 7, 2015 at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Selfless and quiet by nature, this growth has been more forced than organic.

Being the primary option has felt a bit foreign to him, because it is. He wasn't even the highest scorer at Texas A&M during his third and final season there.

But he's made the transition look effortless. In the 17 games he's played since Knight's exit, Middleton has poured in at least 15 points in all but three of them.

"I'm starting to get a little bit more comfortable," he says. "I'm just trying to take advantage of those extra looks I'm getting on the court."

Obviously, it's working.

Not only is he piling up points, but he's proving himself as a crunch-time contributor. When the young Bucks desperately need a basket, they know where to turn.

The scary part about Middleton's ascension is that there are no secrets to his success.

He says he "took the same approach" this past summer as the one before it. The fact this is a contract year hasn't changed anything. "I just come out here and play basketball and let everything else take care of itself in the offseason when it happens," he says.

In other words, this is all sustainable.

He's incredibly versatile—his Basketball-Reference.com page lists him as a shooting guard/small forward/power forward—and that allows him to excel in so many different areas.

His prolific perimeter shooting is the easiest thing to notice at the offensive end, but he's also found success in isolations (0.95 points per possession, 77.6th percentile) and post-up plays (0.95, 78.7th).

"The more versatile you can be, the more valuable you’re going to be, the more you’re going to help your team win games," he says. "It helps in all ways possible right now."

And that versatility extends itself to both ends of the floor.

Defensive Dominance

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Middleton's 3.93 defensive RPM ranks eighth overall and, if you label him as a shooting guard, best at his position.

"On defense, Middleton is the ideal contemporary player," wrote Bleacher Report's Michael Pina. "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."

The Bucks yield just 96.3 points per 100 possessions when Middleton plays. That number jumps to 104.0 when he doesn't. The first figure would rank as the NBA's best. The second would check in at No. 20.

Middleton credits two things for his defensive success: his length (6'10.75" wingspan, per DraftExpress) and his height (6'7").

"I’m quick enough and able to use my length on the smaller guys. I'm as tall as some of these 4's nowadays when they stretch the floor," he says. "Just being versatile, it really helps me out on the offensive end and defensive end to play multiple positions."

Khris Middleton's Defensive Success By Play Type
Play TypeFrequencyPPPFG%Percentile
PNR Ball-Handler20.0%0.6338.487.0

Middleton has held opposing shooters 5.1 percentage points below their average this season (39.0, down from 44.1). Small forwards have posted just a 10.9 player efficiency rating against him, per 82games.com. For opposing shooting guards, that number is a minuscule 9.3. (League average, for the record, is 15.0.)

Based on everything he's shown, he's laying the foundation to be a very good two-way player—if not a great one. That's why an annual salary in the neighborhood of $8 million not only seems reasonable, but it looks like a bargain.

Free-agent shoppers will surely notice that.

No Shortage of Suitors

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Think the big-spending New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers—who rank 29th and 28th, respectively, in defensive efficiency—couldn't use a stopper like Middleton? Or that the Pistons, who are tied for 22nd in three-point shooting, wouldn't welcome his long-range touch back?

Any team with cap space would be foolish not to give Middleton a long look when he reaches restricted free agency.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green has generated some max-contract buzz for his defensive versatility. Middleton brings the same thing, only he's about a year-and-a-half younger and far more productive offensively than Green.

But it might take a miracle to pry Middleton out of Milwaukee.

The Bucks "are expected to match" any offer Middleton receives, according to Woelfel. If that leverage weren't enough, they also have some built-in advantages to keep the swingman around.

Middleton credits first-year Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd for a lot of his success.

"He's been very good for me," Middleton says of Kidd. "He teaches me the game, just tells me to break down little parts of the game, just see different things I've never really thought about before. ... When he tells you something or asks you a question...you want to listen to him and talk to him."

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 29:  Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts with his players Khris Middleton #22 and Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena on October 29, 20
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Middleton also says he loves the city of Milwaukee itself.

"It's a great city, there's a nice little downtown area," he says. "Some people say there's not a lot of stuff to do, but I still find a lot of things to do here."

He's even more enamored with the franchise and the direction it's headed.

"This is definitely somewhere I want to be," he says. "Being a young player, you don't want to keep bouncing around the league. I would love to be here if they want me here long term. But it's a business and I understand how these things go sometimes. But this is a place I can definitely see myself for a long time."

No arm-twisting should be needed to make that happen.

With key contributors like Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker still working on their rookie deals, spending money shouldn't be hard to find. O.J. Mayo's $8 million salary is the biggest on the 2015-16 books, and it's set to expire after the season.

The Bucks know as well as anyone how valuable Middleton is. And they understand there's an economic aspect of that value.

It's sure to be worlds removed from his current rate. But it won't be more than he's worth.

Even when his bank account starts bursting at the seams, he'll still be among the league's best buys.

All quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report, unless specified otherwise. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via HoopsHype.com.

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