Khris Middleton has taken the long way to becoming a contributor in the NBA, but when the second-year forward got a chance to start for the Milwaukee Bucks this year, he’s seized the opportunity.
Middleton, 22, came out of Texas A&M after his junior season in 2011-12 having been limited to just 20 games because of a knee injury.
A knee injury that, as it turned out, wasn’t fully healed by the time his first NBA training camp rolled around in September 2012 with the Detroit Pistons, who had taken Middleton with the 39th overall pick in the draft earlier that year.
It made for a long year. Middleton played in just 27 games for the Pistons and three more for their NBA Development League affiliate in Fort Wayne.
He wound up playing 17.6 minutes a game for Detroit, waffling in and out of former coach Lawrence Frank’s rotation once he was healthy. He averaged 6.1 points and 1.9 rebounds per game and showed some offensive prowess, shooting 44 percent from the floor, but just 31.1 percent from deep, not what you’d want from a wing player.
Over the summer, Middleton was one of the players who moved to Milwaukee when the Pistons signed restricted free agent Brandon Jennings to an offer sheet. The sign-and-trade deal sent three young players—Middleton, along with guard Brandon Knight and center Viacheslav Kravtsov—to the Bucks.
Kravtsov was ultimately traded again to the Phoenix Suns in the deal that brought another small forward, Caron Butler, to Milwaukee.
During training camp, with big men Ersan Ilyasova and Ekpe Udoh ailing, coach Larry Drew toyed with the idea of using the 6’7”, 215-pound Middleton as a stretch 4 in a small-ball lineup, something he continued to experiment with when Ilyasova re-aggravated a sprained ankle opening night against the Knicks.
Middleton started opening night, then came off the bench for four games, re-entering the starting lineup at Miami when Ilyasova went down yet again. He started four games, came off the bench for three more, then got an opportunity to play his natural position—small forward—when Butler’s knee began to bother him.
Middleton has started the last seven games for the Bucks and is settling in nicely.
In those seven games, Middleton is averaging 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and one steal in 28.3 minutes per game. He’s hitting 50.7 percent of his shots, including a sizzling 60 percent (15-for-25) from long range and is 10-for-11 (90.9 percent) from the foul line.
He’s scored in double figures in five of those seven games, including the last three in a row, and in Friday night’s 109-105 overtime win at Washington, he had a career-high 29 points in 47 minutes, hitting 4-of-7 from deep and adding seven boards.
First let’s look at Middleton’s shot chart for the season and you can see he’s been good both above the break and from the corners.
Take a look at those last seven starts and you’ll see a definite color trend around the 3-point line:
He even got a little bit of dap from the folks running the NBA’s social media accounts:
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) December 7, 2013
Middleton was a big reason why the Bucks held a 13-point halftime lead over the Wizards, scoring 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the first half.
He scored his final nine points in the fourth quarter as the Bucks rallied from five points down to force overtime.
“Khris can really shoot the ball,” Drew told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Friday’s game. “He has shown the ability to make shots; he has shown the ability to take it off the dribble. He’s a guy that when he gets his feet set, every shot he takes you think is going in.
“He just allowed the game to come to him. And when he got his hands on it and got good looks, he let it go.”
The win was just Milwaukee’s fourth of the season, but its second in four games after an 11-game losing streak.
Middleton may have to fight for his minutes once Butler returns. Butler’s been out since Nov. 27 with swelling in his knee, but is averaging 13.2 points—second best on the club—in the 12 games he’s played.
Middleton is averaging 11.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and one steal in 26.2 minutes per game overall this season and is hitting 50 percent from 3-point range, tied for fourth in the NBA, so it might be hard for Drew to keep him on the sidelines.
One thing the first month-plus of the season has shown though: Khris Middleton’s not just a throw-in to make a trade work anymore.