With the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo averaging an absurd 34.7 points along with 10.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists through six games, the MVP talk surrounding Milwaukee’s centerpiece has reached a fever pitch. Somewhat overlooked among that noise is a healthy start for the season for Khris Middleton, another key component for the Bucks who was only available for 29 games last season.
“To be honest, it’s really hard not to pay attention, turning on the TV and seeing your face everywhere,” said Antetokounmpo of the MVP talk after Sunday’s win over the Hawks elevated Milwaukee to 4-2. “But I’m a low profile guy. I’m going to try not to get in that conversation.”
Middleton struggled early against the Hawks, shooting just 2-for-11 in the first half before closing the game on a 7-for-8 streak. Informed that Middleton was a game-high plus-18 in the first half despite his shooting woes, Antetokounmpo explained how his teammate can still be effective even when his shot is not falling.
“He moves the ball,” said Antetokounmpo. “Whenever he’s in the game, the ball moves. He’s a great scorer but the ball never gets stuck in his hands. I think that’s what makes him special. And defensively he’s always solid.”
Antetokounmpo added that ball movement has been a team-wide theme in the early going and he’s been encouraged by the results.
“My teammates make the game easier for me,” he continued. “They’re always in the right spot. They always give me the ball when they know I’ve got a mismatch.”
Bucks center John Henson, who will see an increased role while starting center Greg Monroe misses time due to injury, also praised Middleton’s effort while he struggled on offense.
“Just defense,” said Henson of how Middleton contributes when his shot is off. “He made the right plays, had some assists. He hit some big shots toward the end that we needed.”
Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd echoed the comments of Antetokounmpo about the positive ball movement he’s seen in the early season.
“I thought they were making a conscious effort to move the ball,” said Kidd after the win in Atlanta. “Whoever was on the floor, we’re trying to limit our zero-pass shots. We’re not very good when we do that. So I thought, again, the ball was getting to the second side. Playing through Giannis in the post or Khris, I thought guys were sharing the ball. Having 30 assists showed that.”
Kidd also commented on Middleton’s offensive woes, as he’s on pace to average a career-low .415 field goal percentage.
“He’s getting open shots, they’re just not dropping,” said Kidd. “Any time you’re a shooter, you’ve got to continue to keep shooting.”
Kidd added that his team isn’t worried about Middleton’s early struggles.
“We all believe in Khris, that he’s going to make the right play,” said Kidd. “As bad as he shot in the first half he still was plus-26 in the stat sheet [and] almost had a triple-double. The first half wasn’t pretty but Khris is one who’s a grownup, stays with the game plan and makes open shots when he has to.”
The stats support Kidd’s argument, as Milwaukee is 10.9 points better per 100 possessions with Middleton on court this season, a net rating that is second only to Henson. Middleton has been first or second in net rating for the Bucks every season since his third season in the NBA.
While it remains to be seen if the Bucks can elevate to contender status without a dominant traditional point guard, Middleton combines with Antetokounmpo to give Milwaukee the kind of defensive wing depth you see on teams like the Golden State Warriors. Antetokounmpo will continue to get most of the headlines as the season progresses, but don’t forget about Middleton, Milwaukee’s other centerpiece.
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