The journey from second round obscurity to starting lineup spotlight isn’t an easy one. It’s rarely made. It’s even rarer that it’s sustained for an extensive amount of time. In a way, Khris Middleton has already won. He rose from injured college player and lightly regarded second round pick to NBA starter in just two years time. Situation is important context here of course, as Middleton is starting for the NBA’s worst team, but he’s certainly shown enough in his second season that there will be a place for him in the NBA for years to come.
We haven’t really begun to see his evolution. This season he’s gotten a ton more opportunity in the form of minutes and shots, but if you look at his numbers, they are largely last season’s numbers extrapolated over more minutes. The one exception has been his 3-point shooting, which has improved significantly on a percentage basis. Kudos to him on that improvement. It’s made him a much more viable and reliable NBA player.
It’s made him a good enough NBA player for us to start to wonder: What’s next for Khris Middleton?
There are a few different kinds of wings in the NBA. Some guys have athleticism that always made it easy for them to get to the basket. They dunked early and often growing up, but had quickness too. These guys typically didn’t develop much in the way of a jump shot. But the NBA is a place full of athletes and these guys had to adapt to survive. When these guys make it, it’s often because they learn how to shoot. Think Richard Jefferson, a highlight reel dunker early in his early years who made only about 25% of threes that he rarely hoisted.
But Jefferson evolved and has become a prolific catch and shoot 3-point threat. He still isn’t much for shooting off the dribble, but as he aged and lost inches off his vertical, he gained inches on his range.
Then there those who aren’t blessed with the same athletic gifts. They have enough bounce and movement to get by, but they aren’t threats to jump over a Civic en route to a dunk contest championship. These players know that the 3-point shot is their ticket to an NBA career. But there are a lot of guys in the NBA that can make shots while far away from the hoop. This is not enough to keep a guy in the league for a long time. These guys have to develop a counter for when guys run out at them. Think Arron Afflalo, who spent the better part of his first four seasons shooting threes, before improving both as a slasher and post-up guard.
Without the obvious natural gifts of a Jefferson or many other of the NBA’s high flyers, Middleton is closer to Afflalo on the wing spectrum.
He’s been a great 3-point shooter in his second season, one of the best in the league. As I’m writing this, he’s the 10th best 3-point shooter percentage wise in the league this season. For a guy who made only 31% of his threes as a rookie, that’s a great improvement. He’s without question the best jump shooter on the Bucks and really, he’s the best jump shooter they’ve had in a while.
Mike Dunleavy was kind of the gold standard for shooting for two seasons in Milwaukee before this one. But last season, on 527 jump shots, he made only 40%. This season, on 379 jumpers, Middleton has connected on 42%. Even more impressive, he’s hit 47.4% of his pull-up threes (only 19 attempts though) to go with 42.9% of his catch and shoot threes. He’s shown an ability outside of simply standing around or coming off screens.
But Middleton has struggled as a slasher. He’s shot only 35% on roughly two drives per game. And as defenses start to react to him with more intensity on the perimeter, it will be important that he grows here.
“Teams are crowding him more,” Larry Drew said recently when asked about how teams have shifted their approach in defending Middleton. “They are not allowing him to get his feet set and they’re fighting him more off pin downs and wide screens. Forcing him to put the ball on the ground, making him a driver more so than a guy who will come off the screen and get his feet set. And that’s just something that he’s gonna have to get used to.
From a scouting report standpoint, if I were playing against him, I’d probably play him the same. He’s shown he can shoot the ball with the best of them and I’m sure teams are going to try and take that away.”
Drew said it’s going to be on Middleton to develop counters for this. Specifically, he sees Middleton as developing more of a slasher game.
“I think he’s going to have to get a little more elusive off the dribble because teams are going to play him physical,” he said. “They are going to bang him and grab him and not allow him to come off a screen cleanly. He’s going to have to be able to put the ball on the deck to gain some separation.”
Regardless of the next evolution of his game, given the diversity in his shooting skill and price tag over the next two seasons (915,243 next season with a 1.2 million qualifying offer in 2015-16), Middleton stacks up well with the league’s other top shooters. The average salary of the top 20 3-point shooters in the league is $5.5 million, with two appropriate bookends in Carmelo Anthony and Cartier Martin. One’s a star and the other subsists on 10-day contracts. Appropriately, Middleton falls in between the two. Which way he heads after this season will likely be up to him.
I’ve been nearly obsessed with attempting to classify him as either a role player or starter. It’s a fool’s errand really. We don’t know how Middleton is going to develop. He might learn some moves that get him closer to the rim more regularly and increase his shooting percentage on drives next season. Maybe his off-season will be powered by his success as a 3-point shooter and he’ll come back next season and bomb away with even more regularity.
Or maybe he’ll go the Afflalo route and keep adding to his game. He entered the league a shooter, but now Afflalo has an assist rate that’s nearly four times what it was in his second season. He’s developed some strong post moves and turned himself into a featured scorer, albeit for a struggling young Orlando squad. But he’s become coveted and is largely considered good value at $7.5 million annually.
“Last year in Detroit, he didn’t play,” Drew pointed out. “So he’s learning a few things being out on the floor. He’s shown his ability to make shots. He’s going to have to learn all the little ins and outs about coming off screens. Guys who are really good shooters have different little tricks they use off screens, setups and regulating speeds. Right now he’s just a come off screen guy. But the prolific shooters have all kinds of little tricks and I think that’s the next level of his game.”
As a second round pick, Middleton entered the league with an outside shot at putting together a lengthy career. But in his second season, he’s shown enough that it’s fair to wonder if projecting him as a role player may be too harsh an assessment. He’s learning on the job and showing signs of progression in important areas. For example, over his past three games, his assist percentage is nearly 20%, which is roughly twice what it’s hovered around all season.
It’s been a long, difficult season in Milwaukee, but Middleton, while quiet, unassuming and less noticeable on the court than a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo, is the type of bright spot fans were hoping for as they begged the team to rebuild. He isn’t an All-Star or even in the rookie-sophomore game. But Middleton has made Bucks fans happy more than he’s made them sad this season.
On this team, that’s cause for celebration.
Stats accurate as of 2/7/14. I recognize this is last week. Took me a minute to get quotes. Such is life. Thanks for reading.