Khris Middleton and the Keys to Finding 2nd-Round NBA Draft Stars

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IJuly 17, 2021

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton celebrates with teammate forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, at the end of Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns in basketball's NBA Finals Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo has had some cringeworthy moments at the free-throw line during the NBA Finals.

But if the Bucks emerge victorious, he will be remembered not for the array of victims he has posterized in this series but for his Game 4 block of a Deandre Ayton attempted lob-dunk, a play that was critical to Milwaukee's Game 4 win.  

However, if the Suns are able to close it out for what will be their first NBA title in franchise history, much of the credit will go to the "Point God" Chris Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix has fast-tracked the Suns' rise to the NBA mountaintop.

But for all the praise and adulation those two get in leading their respective teams, there's an overlooked element of this series that has been just as important. And it comes from a group of players that, at one point, were simply happy just to be on an NBA  roster, let alone being a major contributor to a title-contending team.

We're talking about second-round picks, players whose impact in this Finals series has been strong and steady.

So what's the secret to finding second-round talent?

Bleacher Report spoke with a handful of scouts and team executives about what it takes to find players in the second round that significantly out-perform their draft position.

When you talk about second-round success stories, there is no one among the second-round brethren in the NBA now doing more this time of year than Milwaukee's Khris Middleton.

Ryan Hoover, the Bucks' vice president for global scouting, is  quite familiar with Middleton's ascension.

Hoover was part of the scouting team in Detroit when the Pistons selected Middleton with the 39th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.  

 "The kid has just worked; every single summer he's taken the proper steps of learning, watching, of listening, just growing to a different level," Hoover told Bleacher Report. "Being part of Team USA, long playoff runs, being around greatness...he's absorbed it all and has just gotten better." 

The assumption that second-round picks have limited room for growth is one of the more common reasons given for them sliding out of the first round.

"The first thing you gotta embrace is, there's a reason they're available in the second round," said a Western Conference scout. "There's something about them that, for whatever reason, turned folks off or made teams hesitate to draft them earlier. As a staff, you have to decide if the warts you come across in the scouting process, can you live with them?"

And often those warts have something to do with a player's age. 

But as we're seeing more of these days, second-round picks are showcasing their potential to be more than just roster filler.

Malcolm Brogdon, now with the Indiana Pacers, was the NBA's Rookie of the Year after the Bucks drafted him in the second round (36th overall). It was the first time a second-round pick won the league's rookie of the year award.

In this postseason, we have seen second-round picks step up at critical moments in their respective team's season and deliver historic performances.

The Los Angeles Clippers advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history this year, and one of the keys to them getting there was Terance Mann.

A second-round pick (48th overall) in 2019 out of Florida State, Mann scored a career-high 39 points in the Clippers' series-clinching Game 6 win over the Utah Jazz.

When you talk about the all-time great sixth men in NBA history, no list would be complete if it did not include Atlanta's Lou Williams, a second-round pick (45th overall) in 2005. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner has scored more than 15,000 points in his career.

When it comes to scouting potential second-round picks, Hoover says that old cliche—draft the best player—is the route most teams take.

But baked into that "best player available" mantra are some character traits that bode well for certain players to excel at the next level despite being second-round picks.

"Being well-coached, has been through battles, knowing you can trust them, you can believe in them. Those are the types of guys you look for," Hoover said. 

A second Eastern Conference executive said what often separates second-round picks from one another, is the ability to provide a very specific skill.

"You look at guys that are still on the board in the second, you're always looking for the best shooter of the bunch or the best athlete or the best defender," said the second Eastern Conference executive. "Because for them to really stick with the team and for that matter, stay around the league for more than a cup of coffee, they have to do something that has value other than being a pretty good player. That's not going to cut it."  

An Eastern Conference scout pointed out how the way the game has become more positionless, has given second-round picks a much better shot at sticking in the league than ever before.

"Sometimes the greatest skill you can have is the ability to defend multiple positions," said the East scout. "That's why a guy like [Phoenix's] Jae Crowder is not only in the league but has had a big role in the success of just about every team he has played for."

Crowder's impact in the Finals has been undeniable. And he hasn't always done it by filling up the stat sheet.

In Phoenix's Game 1 win over Milwaukee, Crowder missed all eight of his shot attempts from the field and finished with just one point. But his hustle, rebounding and ability to defend multiple positions all game long was a key to their win.

And while he scored just a single point, Crowder finished the game with a game-high plus/minus (plus-19).

Crowder's impact has been known by many executives for years. But it wasn't until last year when he helped lead the Miami Heat to a surprising run towards the Finals, did the little things that have been a part of his game for years, begin to garner widespread attention among fans and players alike.

But the biggest key to a second-round player's success, is being in a situation where management and players are both confident in the player's ability to be more than just a roster filler, but a game-changer.

That is how Hoover and the Bucks view Middleton.

"When you sit there and watch his game, you see so much; there's no wasted movement," Hoover said. "He's just a hooper that can play with anybody, right? Just cool, calm, collected, never gets rattled. So good in limited space; that's him."

Oh yeah, he's a second-rounder too!