Back in the summer of 2013, when Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond executed a sign-and-trade deal that sent Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov, few knew what to expect from Middleton. After putting up modest numbers in three years at Texas A&M, Middleton was chosen with the 39th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. In his rookie season with the Pistons, Middleton played sparingly, appearing in only 27 games and averaging just over 17 minutes per game in those contests. Many viewed Middleton as merely a throw-in to the trade, with Knight clearly being the centerpiece.
Last year, in his first season with the Bucks, Middleton saw his role increase drastically compared to what was asked of him in Detroit. While the Bucks struggled mightily that season, finishing the year with the worst record in the NBA, Middleton surprised everyone. With any playoff aspirations gone by the end of December, the Bucks shifted their focus to player development and Middleton was one of a few Bucks who benefited greatly from the team’s awful record. He was able to play extended minutes and gain valuable experience during his second season as a pro. Middleton started in 64 games and grew into one of the Bucks’ most valuable players on the offensive end. He finished the season second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.1 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the field and 41.4 percent from three. Middleton was one of the few bright spots from an otherwise ugly season.
The Bucks underwent a number of significant changes during the offseason following their 15-win campaign. The team was under new ownership, with longtime owner Herb Kohl exiting to be replaced by Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, who purchased majority ownership of the team. Their first major basketball move was to replace Bucks head coach Larry Drew with Jason Kidd, who spent last year with the Brooklyn Nets. For Middleton, this meant his role would up in the air and that he would have to prove himself to Coach Kidd.
Early on, it looked like Middleton would play much more of a reserve role under Kidd than he did while playing for Drew. In three of the Bucks’ first nine games this season, Middleton didn’t see the floor, receiving a DNP-coach’s decision. It appeared Kidd favored the Bucks’ more experienced wings off the bench, such as Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo. However, that didn’t last long. By the end of December, Middleton had blossomed into a key piece on one of most surprising teams in the NBA.
Middleton was moved back into the starting lineup on December 29 as the Bucks took on the Charlotte Hornets and has thrived ever since. In January, Middleton had a sky high offensive rating of 122 and true shooting percentage of 64.3. Middleton knocked down 23 of his 44 attempts from downtown over the Bucks’ 14 games in January. He continued to excel in February, averaging 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
With Knight now out of the picture, Middleton has become the Bucks’ primary option on offense. Despite seeing an increase in his usage, Middleton has remained a very efficient scorer. Since the All-Star break, he is scoring 18 points per game, while shooting 46.6 percent from the field. Not to mention, he has actually improved his three-point shooting from 42.3 percent pre-All-Star break to 44.1 percent post-break.
His growth on the offensive end has certainly been impressive, but not totally unexpected considering the numbers he put up a season ago. However, his transformation on the defensive end is a different story. Last year, Middleton left a lot to be desired on that end of the floor. Sure, playing on such a poor team didn’t do him any favors, but all signs pointed to Middleton being a below-average defender. This season, he has been far better than even the most optimistic Middleton supporters could have hoped for. Last week, Basketball Insiders’ writer Ben Dowsett touched on just how valuable Middleton has been to the Bucks’ defense, arguing that he’s a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. That’s because when Middleton is on the floor, the Bucks’ team defense has been remarkably better than when he is off the floor. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus currently ranks eighth in the league, a shocking revelation after finishing 419th in the same category a season ago, per ESPN.com.
Few players have grown as much as Middleton over the last two seasons. As a second round pick, just making an NBA roster is considered an accomplishment. It’s becoming very clear that Middleton won’t have to worry about that anytime soon. In fact, he will be restricted free agent this offseason and has positioned himself for a nice payday.
Middleton has developed into the ideal “3-and-D” wing that every NBA team desires. He is an ultra-efficient scorer and a versatile defender who, statistically, has shown he can be one of the best in the league. His improved play and impending free agency is something that surely came into play when the Bucks decided to trade Knight, who will also be a restricted free agent this offseason. The move of Knight is evidence that if the Bucks are going to open up their checkbook this offseason, Middleton is the player they favor. With the way he has played, Middleton will not come cheap. It seems almost certain he will command a deal of over $10 million per year and that may be on the conservative side.
In less than two full seasons with the Bucks, Middleton has come a long way. You could even argue that of all the players moved in that Bucks-Pistons trade, Middleton has become the most valuable of the group. The move, in hindsight, has been one of Hammond’s best, especially when you consider the haul the Bucks were able to get for Knight at the trade deadline this year. Middleton may have started this season as somewhat of an unknown, but those days are long gone. At only 23 years old, Middleton has developed into one of the better young wings in the NBA.
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