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NBA Saturday: Khris Middleton Becoming Go-To Guy for Bucks

Khris Middleton is proving that he is more than worth the big contract he signed last offseason.

Jesse Blancarte

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When the Milwaukee Bucks agreed to terms on a five-year, $70 million contract with Khris Middleton last offseason, many NBA fans scrutinized the deal. Part of the strong reaction was rooted in the fact that Middleton was drafted 39th overall in the 2012 draft and was essentially a throw in as part of the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade with the Detroit Pistons. While Middleton made a name for himself last year as a very solid wing-defender and spot-up shooter, he was still an unknown to many casual fans.

Despite any immediate negativity the Bucks’ front office received, they were very comfortable paying Middleton $70 million over five years since the salary cap is set to explode after this season and most role players will be making roughly $10 million or more annually moving forward.

With Middleton staying put, the addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Jabari Parker from a season ending ACL tear, many fans and members of the media expected a big step forward from the Bucks this season. However, the Bucks have been up-and-down throughout the first half of the season and are currently ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference (five games back in the loss column to the eighth seed Miami HEAT).

Despite the disappointing season, Bucks fans should be excited about the tremendous growth we have seen from Middleton this season. Middleton isn’t just living up to his contract, he is making it look like a bargain.

Last season, Middleton averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from beyond the arc. This season, Middleton is averaging 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from three-point range. The uptick in Middleton’s per game averages this season may seem nominal, but that is because he got off to a slow start this season. However, since December 20, Middleton is averaging 22.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and one steal per game, while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from distance.

Those numbers are very good but still don’t fully indicate just how much Middleton has improved this season. Specifically, they don’t indicate how much Middleton has improved as a play-maker. Since the end of December, Middleton has been relied on to frequently initiate the Bucks’ offense and operate in the pick-and-roll. Middleton has been surprisingly effective so far, especially when you consider that he has always been considered just a 3-and-D wing.

Part of the reason why the Bucks are using Middleton as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll is because he is one of the only players Milwaukee has that can shoot and pass well enough consistently to bend opposing defenses, create at least some space for teammates and force crisp rotations from opponents.

In this play, Middleton draws hard coverage from both Spencer Hawes and Nicolas Batum off of John Henson’s pick. Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the spot-up shooters spacing the floor on the weak-side, neither of whom are threats from three-point range. As a result, the Hornets are comfortable packing in the paint, preventing an open lob from Middleton to Henson. This forces Middleton to take a tough jumper over both Batum and Hawes.

 

Middleton has been making this shot in recent games and is probably the only player that Milwaukee has that can do so with any sort of consistency, which is one of the things that makes Middleton valuable as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets.

The fact that Middleton can draw so much defensive attention is big for this Bucks squad since they lack the shooting to space the floor. Additionally, the fact that Middleton is a career 40.7 percent shooter from distance and now a serious threat to hit pull up jumpers as the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll means that he can stretch defenses enough that they will occasionally make mistakes guarding the weak-side.

As mentioned above, defenses will pack the paint knowing that the Bucks don’t have the shooters to punish them, however, this can leave players like Parker open to run baseline for an occasional uncontested shot at the rim.

 

This play worked particularly well since Monroe is such an effective post scorer and passer. Marvin Williams made the mistake of staying somewhat within range of Michael-Carter Williams and Antetokounmpo, neither of whom are threats from distance, rather than paying attention to Parker who usually looks for easy shots at the rim by running baseline. Also, it should be noted that the pocket pass that Middleton makes on this play is a difficult one to make. There was only a small window for Middleton to make this pass and it is one that even some of the better passing point guards in the league miss with some frequency.

The fact that Middleton can now execute these plays consistently is a testament to the work he put in last offseason. Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently spoke to Middleton about his offseason training, which included some workouts with HEAT guard Dwyane Wade.

“It’s been a huge impact so far,” Middleton told Gardner. “Just talking to [Wade], and him letting me know how he approaches the game and what he’s thinking in certain situations, it’s helping me out tremendously.”

Wade is and has been one of the best play-makers at shooting guard over the last decade or so. It seems like Wade’s lessons have stuck with Middleton, who has moved from floor-spacer to all-around offensive weapon this season, similar to Wade. Count Wade among those who have been impressed with Middleton’s overall progress.

“He’s a guy who can get his shot off at any point,” Wade said. “This year they’ve opened up his game more and made him more of a playmaker for the team. He’s posting up; he’s running a lot of pick-and-rolls.

“He’s a young guy who has potential. Nobody really knows how high of a ceiling he has. You’re starting to see it. He’s putting big games together for them.”

Middleton isn’t just creating plays for others out of the pick-and-roll. He is being opportunistic and finding different ways to find easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. Teammates are now looking for Middleton off of defensive rebounds, allowing Middleton to attack scrambling defenses in transition. This is a nice weapon for Milwaukee to turn to since transition opportunities mitigate the Bucks’ biggest limitation on offense (lack of shooting/spacing) and maximizes their greatest strength (length and athleticism).

 

In addition to asking him to be more of a play-maker, the Bucks are running sets to get Middleton one-on-one in the post and on the wing when he has a favorable matchup. This can be particularly damaging against teams that run two point guards together, such as the Hornets. Jeremy Lin had the unfortunate task of trying to stop Middleton in their recent matchup, which Middleton took advantage of.

On this particular play, we see Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams notice that Middleton has an opportunity to go one-on-one against Lin. They don’t run any fancy actions, they just simply dump the ball to Middleton and clear out. Using his significant height advantage and a simple step-back, Middleton gets an easy 12-foot jump shot, which he buries.

 

This may not seem like a big deal, but for a team that lacks consistent shooting, play-making and a go-to scorer, the ability to dump the ball to Middleton in isolation is a nice weapon for the Bucks. And don’t think that Middleton is only able to score against weaker opponents in limited situations. Middleton has shown the ability to score against some of the better wing-defenders in the league this season.

One such example can be seen above when Batum and Hawes were in his face and he was still able to knock in a jumper off the dribble. However, the best example we have of this is Middleton’s recent game-sealing shot against the Chicago Bulls.

Middleton was being guarded by Jimmy Butler, one of the premier wing-defenders in the NBA. Middleton used some nice footwork to create some separation from Butler and, like he did against Lin, utilized his length to get a clean look at the rim.

 

Critics of Middleton and his contract may point to the fact that the Bucks’ defense has been terrible overall this season, which is something Middleton is supposed to have a positive impact on. They can point out that his Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating dropped from 4.09 last season to -1.87 this season.

It’s true that Middleton has been less effective overall defensively this season than last. However, most of that has to do with the fact that the Bucks have been a mess defensively all season and have yet to figure out how to address that. In addition, Middleton is carrying a much heavier burden on offense, leaving him less energy on defense. Lastly, as Zach Lowe of ESPN recently pointed out, the Bucks are experimenting on both ends of the court each game and recently assigned Parker to guard each opponent’s best wing-scorers. This has pushed Middleton off the ball, unlike last season, which has changed the impact he can make defensively.

Despite the defensive setback, Middleton is playing the best ball of his career and has evolved from a 3-and-D wing to a go-to scorer and play-maker for Milwaukee. He is still spacing the floor with his smooth jumper, while punishing teams off the dribble in ways he previously could not.

The Bucks still have a lot to figure out, but one thing is certain: Khris Middleton is proving his skeptics wrong and is proving that he is well worth the contract Milwaukee gave him last offseason.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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