Normally, an NBA All-Star and a clear second option on a championship contending team is noticed by the basketball world. However, no one has given Khris Middleton the attention that his status on the court usually warrants. This offseason, some expected the Bucks All-Star to move to a bigger market to prove his worth, but Middleton, instead, quietly re-signed with Milwaukee while lesser-quality free agents were soaked in the spotlight.
While many All-Stars would be outraged by the lack of media attention, Middleton is used to flying under the radar.
Passed over by most colleges as a late-blooming high schooler, Middleton thrived at Texas A&M, but he was still overlooked at a school that doesn’t have a history of producing basketball stars. An injury during his junior year dropped whatever NBA stock Middleton did have even further, but Middleton didn’t care. He knew he was ready for the NBA, and even with little hype, the former Aggie decided to enter the draft.
Selected by the Pistons with the 39th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Middleton’s prospects didn’t look bright. With limited roster spots available with his new team, Middleton would need to prove himself in the Summer League to even earn a spot on the team. After a draining summer, Middleton had proven that he at least deserved a spot on the bench, and the Pistons finally signed the rookie in mid-August.
However, while Middleton made the cut, that didn’t necessarily guarantee him time on the court. After playing sparingly in the preseason, Middleton rode the bench for the first few months of the season, appearing in just three games before Thanksgiving. With no room for Middleton on the court, the Pistons called the rookie and told him the words that no NBA player wants to hear: you’ve been assigned to the D-league.
In early December, Middleton was transferred to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, where he would spend most of the month playing in front of sparse crowds in America’s seventy-seventh biggest city. Luckily, Middleton made the most of his short tenure, and he was soon recalled to the big leagues – where he proceeded to ride the bench for another two months.
As the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that the struggling Pistons were out of the playoff hunt. As a result, Middleton began to receive some playing time in meaningless March and April games. Never wasting an opportunity, Middleton seized his opportunity, recording a double-digit point total in seven games over the last two months off the season while playing in limited minutes.
Often cast aside by the Pistons during his time with the organization, it was clear that Middleton needed a change of scenery heading into his second-year in the league. Fortunately, his current team agreed, sending Middleton to the Bucks as part of a package for Brandon Jennings.
When arriving in Milwaukee, the Bucks coaching staff saw something that the Pistons staff hadn’t, and Middleton immediately became a regular starter for the club. In his first season with the team, Middleton appeared in all 82 regular season games after only playing in 27 contests during his rookie season. Not only did he play, but he played well in Milwaukee, shooting 41% from beyond the arc and averaging over 12 points per game during his first season with the team.
While Middleton had individual success in his first season with his new squad, the team struggled, finishing with the worst record in the entire league. There was only one way to go for Milwaukee and for Middleton – up.
Over the next two years, the team would improve. The organization began to develop the raw talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they surrounded him with a decent collection of young players, led by Middleton. During that time span, Middleton continued to be a solid contributor for the team, averaging around 15 points per game while providing leadership in the locker room, but he had yet to develop into a standout player.
Going into the 2016-17 season, Middleton seemed poised for a breakout year. Unfortunately, that idea was quickly halted after he suffered a preseason hamstring injury that sidelined him for the first six months of the season. Returning for the end of the regular season, Middleton didn’t look like himself, struggling to regain his footing in the fast-paced season.
After a first-round playoff exit, it was clear that the Bucks supporting cast needed to step up to support All-Star Antetokounmpo. Middleton was ready to take up that responsibility.
As soon as the season started, Middleton came on to the court looking like a new player. In November alone, Middleton recorded the first two 40 point games of his career, and he finished the season averaging a career-best 20 points per game. While Middleton’s regular season performances were impressive, he saved his best work for when it mattered the most – the playoffs.
Coming into the postseason, Milwaukee was only the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and they were matched up against the second seeded Boston Celtics. Even against the heavily favored Celtics, the Bucks believed they could win the series. The first six games of the series were an absolutely slugfest, with each team winning on their home court before the Celtics closed out the series in Boston with a game seven victory.
While Antetokounmpo played well, Middleton was the reason the Bucks were able to take the series all the way to seven games. Throughout the seven games, Middleton averaged almost 25 points per game, including a valiant 32 point performance in game 7 even though his team came up just short. In addition, Middleton finally showed off his prowess as a deadly long range specialist, shooting at least 50% from beyond the arc in all seven games.
After his impressive postseason performance, many wondered whether Middleton could continue his momentum going into last season, the last one on Middleton’s contract. They didn’t have to wait long to get their answer.
Middleton immediately proved himself as a star, capable of taking over games when the situation called for him. Throughout the first few months of the season, Middleton recorded stellar numbers while helping Milwaukee remain near the top of a competitive Eastern Conference. His early season performances were validated with his first All-Star selection, and by the end of the season the Bucks had amassed an impressive 60-22 record, the best in the NBA.
In the postseason, the Bucks and Middleton cruised through the first two rounds, only dropping one game against the Celtics and Pistons. Then, they came up against the eventual NBA champion Raptors. Even though Milwaukee was able to win the first two games of the series, Middleton was never really a contributor, only reaching 15 points in one of the six games. The Bucks were thrust out of the playoffs and Middleton was one of the team’s scapegoats, as his performance during the series was a far cry from his regular season success.
After their postseason exit, the Bucks had an important decision to make regarding Middleton, the team’s highest profile free agent. Across the league, rumors circulated about where the All-Star would end up, but the drama was resolved quickly when the Bucks announced they had resigned Middleton on a 5 year, $178 million contract.
While Middleton has steadily improved throughout his time in the league, the next few years will determine what his legacy will be for years to come. Now on an expensive contract, Middleton has to prove that he can be a second-option not only during the regular season, but also a consistent threat during the playoffs. While Antetokounmpo is the face of the franchise, Middleton may be the most important player when it comes to the games that matter the most.
After Middleton’s inconsistency last season, many are questioning why the Bucks spent big on the one-time All-Star, asking if now that he received his big contract, will last season prove to be a fluke.
It might be, but Middleton has proved his doubters wrong before.