The Milwaukee Bucks’ surprise all-star, Khris Middleton, has quietly grown into the model of a two-way wing on the league’s best team this season. His journey from second round draft pick out of Texas A&M to juggernaut team leader has been a fun development, and is culminating at just the right time in his career as he can opt out of the final year of his current contract (he’s owed just $13 million) and become an unrestricted free agent this July.
The 6’8 222-pound wing is finishing up his seventh year in the league, six of which have been in Milwaukee. The Bucks are a complete team, led by soon-to-be MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But there’s no doubt that Middleton is one of the most important pieces of this 60-win team’s success, with his ability to play on both sides of the floor and contribute when the ball isn’t in his hands.
In 31 minutes per game this season he’s put up averages of 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal, while shooting 38 percent from three. His outside shooting is particularly impressive when you consider his numbers from college, where he shot 32 percent from deep over three seasons (26 percent in his final year in College Station). Now Middleton, who turns 28 over the summer, is a constant threat from deep. After his rookie year when he connected on 31 percent of threes, his average has never dipped below 36 percent in a season (a career 39 percent three point shooter).
As is the case with many players that find major success after being drafted in the second round, Middleton has a strong work ethic. He’s had to adapt his game and expectations of him under a couple of coaches, and it doesn’t seem to faze him. The ability to develop an outside shot is a great example of that. And the Mavericks know better than most teams that when your top producing players have the hardest work ethic on the team, it impacts the entire roster.
In personality and style, Middleton has become the ideal second option. There were a couple seasons as Giannis was still growing into the player he is today where it wasn’t obvious who the number one was in Milwaukee. But as that became clearer in the last two-plus seasons, Middleton became the best complement to Antetokounmpo in form and style. That transition isn’t always easy.
Offensively, Middleton is at his best from 10 feet and out. He’s smooth with the ball, able to find space for his jumper off the dribble, never exploding past defenders but finding creative ways to get to his spots.
In coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season in Milwaukee, Middleton has been forced to shoot more from three and less from the midrange. But he’s comfortable in rhythm, off the dribble, or off catch and shoot situations, from a variety of spots. During the regular season Middleton shot catch and shoot and pull-up threes with nearly identical frequency (he shot 35 percent in C&S, and 39 percent in pull-ups). In the playoffs, he’s played with similar balance and is a lethal 47 percent from both.
In other areas Middleton is impactful. He has solid vision, able to move the ball around the perimeter as well as finding shooters off the dribble. He crashes the boards on both ends, and is good at grabbing and going in transition, pushing and finding outlets down the floor.
Defensively capable of guarding either wing position, Middleton leverages his length and basketball IQ to to be a high end defender. Milwaukee had the league’s number one defense this season, and he’s the team’s best wing defender. He has size to take on forwards around the basket, and the length to challenge shooters around the perimeter.
And outside of a bad hamstring injury that sidelined him for the majority of the 2016-17 season, Middleton has been very durable in the NBA (he battled injury his final season in college), appearing in 77+ games in every season in Milwaukee. In a league that is full of stars battling injury, and organizations that prioritize regular season rest, a player that can perform every night is increasingly valuable.
The biggest knock on Middleton going back to his college days was an apparent low motor. He isn’t an above-the-rim athlete, won’t explode past a defender in traffic, and his introverted personality can give off a lack of energy or passion. It even resulted in a mid-game benching earlier this season as Budenholzer established his philosophy and system. Most of those concerns though should be put to rest.
Before this season, the other flag on Middleton was from an analytics standpoint. His offensive game thrived best in the midrange, a devalued area in modern offenses. For many seasons he was taking the majority of his shots from 10 feet out to the three point line. Just last season, over 40 percent of his attempts came in this area. But in a sign of his coach-ability, Middleton is taking 41 percent of his field goal attempts from three.
Fit with the Mavericks
The Mavs have a lot of needs this summer, primarily wing talent and shooting. Outside of fitting those needs, plus a strong defensive presence, Middleton would be the ideal complement to Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. With an ability to play off their pick and roll, attacking defenses from the wing, and knocking down kick-outs, Middleton would not only fill in the gaps to Luka’s playmaking, defenses wouldn’t be able to take a break off-ball.
Defensively he could be the Mavericks lock down perimeter defender, taking on opponents’ scoring guards, and alleviating those duties from Doncic or any of the bench players. And he’d also become a leader with playoff experience, something this roster will need down the road.
Finally, he’d allow for Doncic and Porzingis to not have to shoulder all of the playmaking load. Both young players are capable, and have already shown ability to be leaders at a young age. But the Mavericks will need a high level player to partner with them. And that it could come in the form of a reserved Middleton, a player who doesn’t demand the spotlight and is willing to share with young charismatic players, makes this pairing even better.
Whether or not you could convince Middleton to leave the role he has now on a contending team, only to fill a similar role on a young rebuilding team seems unlikely. But if the Mavs want to take a giant leap forward, finding a utility star like Middleton is the best case scenario.